Officials at the Federal Railroad Administration said Friday that Southern Pacific “is pretty much in the middle range compared with other railroads” in terms of frequency of accidents and casualties suffered.
From 1982 through 1987, the latest year for which a Southern Pacific breakdown was available, the agency said the line had a total of 1,789 derailments.
Southern Pacific accidents, including collisions and derailments, reported during the six-year period caused a total of 43 fatalities and 176 injuries.
William Loftus, the Railroad Administration’s executive director, said that in 1987 Southern Pacific reported 129 derailments along with seven collisions, causing six fatalities and 29 injuries.
He said that constituted a ratio of 1.04 casualties per million miles of travel by Southern Pacific trains along its nearly 13,000 miles of track in 14 states.
Of the 129 Southern Pacific derailments in 1987, Loftus said his agency had ascribed 70 to track defects, 28 to mechanical and equipment failures, 10 to human factors, including human errors or substance abuse, and 21 to miscellaneous factors such as load shifts or vandalism.
The proportion of equipment and mechanical failures in 1987 was a little higher for Southern Pacific than for American railroads as a whole.
But, Loftus said, there is really “nothing extraordinary” about Southern Pacific accident losses or causes as compared to the rest of the industry.
Other statistics provided by the agency showed that the number of railroad accidents in the United States overall has been declining in the last seven years, although there was a slight rise in 1988.
Human factors and track defects, such as warps or cracks, were far more often found to be the cause of accidents than mechanical and electrical failures, according to a spokeswoman for the Railroad Administration. Indeed, from 1982 to 1988, only about one-sixth of all accidents investigated were ascribed to mechanical and electrical failures.
The spokeswoman, Claire Austin, said that during the seven-year period, there were 24,081 rail accidents in the United States that caused at least $4,700 damage each.
Of these, 8,914 were found to be caused by track defects, 7,183 were caused by human factors, 4,029 by mechanical and electrical failures and 3,955 by miscellaneous factors.
Spokesmen for both the Railroad Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board declined all comment on what might have caused Friday’s Southern Pacific crash, saying they would not speculate until their investigations are complete.
Loftus said that in both 1987 and 1988 Southern Pacific had won an award for being the railroad with the lowest number of employee injuries considering miles traveled.