Off The Tracks: The Reasons Trains Derail

The 140,000 miles of railway tracks that crisscross the country carry freight and passengers from one coast to the other. Broken rails, collisions with other trains or vehicles, mechanical failures, or obstructions on the tracks can quickly send a train barreling off the tracks.

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Trains Derail

Causes of Railroad Derailments

Broken Rails

Between 2001 and 2010, there were 58,299 train accidents in the United States. Of these, 9,000 were derailments that caused nearly $2 billion in damages. The Federal Railroad Administration’s investigations of these accidents showed that broken rails were the factor that caused 15% of these accidents.

Tracks can break due to faulty joints, soil shifting, improper welding, and/or tampering. Track inspectors state that in many cases, track defects begin as submolecular defects when the tracks leave the foundry that only become apparent when a track has failed. While ultrasonic testing is reducing the frequency of track failures due to manufacturing defects, inspectors have testified that the technology is not perfect.

Track Geometry

Improper track geometry caused 7.3% of train derailments between 2001 and 2010. Track geometry includes train alignment, rail gauge, and track elevation. When these do not align, it makes it impossible for the train to continue safely down the track.

Bearing Failure

Bearing failure accounted for 5.9% of train derailments. Bearings can fail due to normal wear and tear, improper lubrication, or from striking objects on the tracks. When this occurs, the wheels on the railroad cars stop functioning and this causes them to “skip” the track and derail the train.

Broken Wheels

The wheels on railway cars can be subjected to thousands of pounds per square inch of pressure. Over time, this can cause cracks and deformities to arise. When they do, they can cause the wheels to cease functioning or to detach from the train. Broken wheels account for 5.2% of all train derailments.

Train Handling

Excess speeds around corners or through populated areas can increase the likelihood that a train will derail. Improper handling accounts for 4.6% of train derailments.

In some cases, a combination of errors and defects leads to derailments. This was the case in Mount Carbon, West Virginia when a train carrying crude oil derailed forcing more than 1,000 people to flee their homes. The crash was caused by a broken rail and improper rail maintenance and monitoring. In that crash, 19 cars carrying nearly 600,000 gallons of crude oil derailed and caught fire.

Train Derailments a Considerable Concern

On April 3, 2016, a train struck a backhoe being operated by Amtrak employees 15 miles outside of Philadelphia. This collision caused the train to derail and killed two Amtrak employees. The derailment also injured 30 passengers who were on the train. Further, the derailment caused Amtrak to suspend traffic between New York and Philadelphia which caused significant disruption throughout the region.

This accident followed a May 2015 accident in which a New York City bound train derailed in the same area. That accident killed 8 people and injured over 200. These accidents have alarmed legislators such as New York Senator Charles Schumer who is presently calling for a full investigation of the safety and maintenance of the line.

From 2000 to 2015, 300 freight trains have derailed on Pennsylvania’s 5,000 miles of tracks. Of these, investigations by the Federal Railroad Administration showed that over half were caused by track defects. 24% were caused by human error. The remainder were caused by equipment failures or collisions with objects such as track maintenance equipment.

Accidents Rates Vary Considerably by Railway

From 2005 to 2014, the Federal Railroad Administration studied the number of accidents incurred by the major rail carrying companies in the United States. Their data showed that the Union Pacific Railroad was the most dangerous with 20,703 accidents recorded. This was followed by Amtrak at 18,460, and BNSF at 16,912.

Inspectors Overwhelmed

There are currently 2,500 railway track inspectors employed in the US. Each are responsible for monitoring between 65 to 80 miles of track per day. Most do this via slow moving vehicles or by foot. These inspectors are responsible for ensuring the safety of nearly 30 million carloads of freight every year.

The increase in traffic and the complexity of the rail networks has forced many inspectors to rush through their inspections. In a survey conducted by the Federal Railway Administration, it was discovered that many dispatchers are forcing inspectors off the tracks in order for trains to move ahead.

Railroad injury lawyers know that heavier loads, increased traffic, and decreased time to detect flaws are increasing the likelihood that more train derailments will occur in the future. This will lead to more injuries, more fatalities, and considerably more damage to property. Fortunately, when they do, the Federal Employers Liability Act can offer railroad workers legal options to seek compensation from the negligent behavior leading up to the derailment.