Mile for mile, rail travel is much safer than road travel, but it depends crucially on keeping the trains on the tracks — and on keeping those tracks clear and in good repair. Amtrak is not always great at that.
Federal Railroad Administration statistics show that in recent years Amtrak has had an average of about two derailments a month, accounting for about one-quarter of all the accidents it reports. Most derailments happen at low speeds on yard and station tracks, though, and they have rarely caused more than minor injuries.
Passenger deaths in train accidents of all kinds have been rarer still; many recent years have seen none at all. When a train causes a fatality, it usually comes in a collision with a motor vehicle or with people on the tracks, a more frequent type of accident.
Last year, after an Amtrak train struck a backhoe and killed two track maintenance workers in Chester, Pa., the National Transportation Safety Board criticized Amtrak for having a weak safety culture. Robert L. Sumwalt, the board’s chairman, called some of Amtrak’s procedures “clumsy” and said investigators had found that a “culture of fear” pervaded the railroad.
Amtrak responded that it had been a “safe and reliable transporter of more than 30 million passengers” and that it had a strong safety record. But Amtrak added that “we need to assess how we can get better.”
Here are some other recent derailment accidents that made headlines, illustrating what can go wrong.
Philadelphia | May 2015
An Amtrak train bound for New York careened off the tracks on a curve, smashing one car and sending others tumbling. Eight passengers were killed and 185 more hospitalized.
• Investigators found that the train was traveling at twice the speed limit of 50 m.p.h. for that curve.
Northfield, Vt. | October 2015
An Amtrak train bound for Washington derailed, and two cars tipped down an embankment. A crew member and six passengers were injured.
• A rock slide had deposited debris in the path of the train.
Pompano Beach, Fla. | January 2016
A Tri-Rail commuter train derailed on a straightaway between stations. One person was injured.
• The crew reported striking debris on the tracks.
Dodge City, Kan. | March 2016
An Amtrak train derailed west of the city after midnight, with eight cars leaving the tracks and six tipping over. Thirty-two people were injured.
• Investigators found that a truck had previously hit the tracks and shifted them far enough out of alignment to cause the derailment.
New York City | June 2017
A subway train derailed in a tunnel, injuring 34 people.
• Officials said the accident was caused by a piece of spare rail that had been left unsecured after track work.
Pennsylvania Station, N.Y. | March — August 2017
An Amtrak Acela train departing for Washington derailed at slow speed and sideswiped a New Jersey Transit commuter train entering the station in March. Several minor injuries were reported.
Another New Jersey Transit train jumped the rails at slow speed in the station two weeks later, in April. At least one person suffered minor injuries.
A third similar incident in July, with no apparent injuries, happened just before the start of eight weeks of work on the aging station’s tracks, prompted in part by the April derailment, and a fourth in August, involving an empty train being moved by an engineer, happened after the work had begun.
• Track defects, including mismatched sections of rail along a curve in the station, were responsible for the accidents, officials said. Amtrak, which owns Penn Station, acknowledged that it was aware of problems with deteriorating tracks but had not realized how urgently repairs were needed until the April derailment.