Train Accidents in America: Everything Passengers & Railroad Workers Need to Know

Whether you’re riding a commuter train to work or negotiating railway crossings while driving your children to school, like millions of other Americans, you have contact with the railway system every day. It only takes one malfunctioning piece of equipment or a moment of carelessness to cause a catastrophic accident that could change your life or claim the life of someone you love.

This article is meant to act as your guide to train accidents in America. You can find out more about why they happen, who’s responsible, and what to do if you’ve been in one.

Just scroll down or click on any of the topics below to read more!

Train Accident Facts & Statistics

The first recorded railroad accident in U.S. history happened on July 25, 1832, near Quincy, Massachusetts. Four people, who had been invited to watch stone loads being transported, were thrown from a car on the Granite Railway when a cable snapped. They fell over a 34-foot cliff. One man died and the three others suffered serious injuries.

Despite stringent safety regulations and improved technology and equipment, train accidents continue to happen today. Passengers, motorists, pedestrians, and railroad workers may all be at risk of harm in these incidents.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)reported that between January and July of 2021:

  • There were 837 train accidents in the U.S.
  • 58 were collisions and 574 were classified as derailments.
  • These train accidents caused 3 deaths and 29 injuries.
  • There were also 1,167 highway-rail crossing accidents.
  • Rail crossing accidents caused 131 deaths and 346 injuries.

Here are some more train accident facts and figures:

  • There is a train collision or derailment every 1.5 hours in the U.S.
  • Trains carrying hazardous chemicals derail every 2 weeks.
  • The FRA reports that 80% of railroad crossings do not provide adequate warnings.
  • Most train accidents are caused by human factors, track causes, or equipment.

There is no end in sight for passenger and cargo transport by rail in America. It is a valuable method of transportation, but statistics like those listed above beg the question: what can be done to prevent train accidents from occurring in the first place? To determine that, we should look at their causes.

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Top 3 Causes of Railroad Accidents in the U.S.

According to the FRA, the top three causes of train accidents in the U.S. are:

  • Human factors, which accounted for 38% of train accidents in the U.S. from January through July of 2021. This may include any behavior by a person that led to the incident, such as negligence, distraction, speeding, or carelessness.
  • Track causes, which accounted for 27% of train accidents. This may include issues with the track itself and its parts, such as defective crossties, faulty switches, or worn switch points.
  • Equipment causes, which accounted for 13% of train accidents. Trains are large, complex machines with countless moving parts. Faulty or defective equipment can easily cause a serious accident.

Let’s take a look at a few specific train accident causes.

Human Error: Train Accidents Caused by Conductor Negligence

After a train accident takes place, the incident will most likely be under investigation by National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the train company, and possibly other state and local authorities. They will review the accident and potential causes, including the safety of the railroad and the train itself. In cases that come down to matters of conductor negligence, authorities will be increasingly vigilant in pinpointing what happened.

Train conductors are expected to abide by certain laws, provide quality service, and pay detailed attention to their surroundings. When they fail to do their job properly, they may put hundreds of others at risk.

Examples of conductor negligence can include:

  • Managing the train while under the influence of alcohol
  • Operating a train while on drugs or a prescription medication
  • Talking on a cell phone or texting
  • Any behavior that takes the conductor's full attention away from their job

Railroad Accidents Caused by Excessive Cargo Load

Among the most severe train accident causes is overloaded or overweight cargo. Overloaded train cars are more difficult to control, making operation almost impossible in some cases. When cargo loads exceed their allotted weight limits, the lives of everyone on the train become endangered. A train car that is too heavy could easily derail. It could just as easily topple over. It will also take longer for an overloaded train to stop, and a too-heavy load will put undue stress on brakes and other train parts.

When an overloaded train is also ineffectively operated or poorly maintained, the potential for an accident will increase exponentially. Perhaps one of the biggest problems is derailment, which can harm passengers, workers, and roadside travelers. The lives of others should never be put at risk because a rail company wants to transport more cargo than is safe for a train to carry.

Improper Train Maintenance

For a train to run properly, it must be adequately maintained.

This is a reasonable statement; however, it is not always adhered to. In fact, many train accidents are the direct result of failures to properly maintain train engines, rail cars, and other train parts. In addition to seeing to it that all of a train's inner parts are in good working condition, train operators and rail companies are responsible for maintaining all other systems related to the proper functioning of railway vehicles. Areas that require continual maintenance include the wheel lathe, the brake system, and even the facilities that train companies use to clean and store their cars.

Trains can pose a public hazard if they are not well maintained in a way that allows for the safety of passengers, workers, and nearby onlookers. This means that proper maintenance procedures must be taken at all times, including those times when a train is not actually on the tracks. For example, train cars are stabled in depots which need to be cleaned and serviced just as thoroughly and frequently as the train itself. Failure to properly wash depots and make sure they are free of any toxic hazards and/or materials is crucial to the operation of the train. Furthermore, a train's mechanical parts—right down to the toilet system—need to be cleaned, updated, and maintained constantly in order the ensure that defects in one area do not trickle into any other, thereby causing accidents of a catastrophic nature. Even fallen leaves on a railroad track could pose a potential danger because they can damage train car wheels—a problem that could lead to derailment.

After you have been injured in a train accident, you have every right to question the causation of the accident. In fact, there is often good reason to believe that the seriousness of the accident could have been avoided had the proper maintenance procedures been taken. With the help of a train accident lawyer that can investigate the accident and determine what led to it, you stand to obtain a much more profitable case outcome.

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Railroad Crossing Accidents: The Most Common Type of Train Collision

In 2020, there were 1,910 highway-rail crossing accidents. There were 1,167 just in the first half of 2021. Due to the massive size discrepancy between train cars and automobiles or pedestrians, railroad crossing accidents are nearly always catastrophic.

Crossing Accidents Between Cars & Trains

Instances of derailment and conductor negligence can quickly lead to accidents involving other vehicles on the road—and, when they do, the results often include serious injury or wrongful death. Usually, train accidents are the result of improper maintenance or excessive cargo loads that can easily lead to derailment or malfunction. Human error must also be taken into account in these situations.

Train conductors and staff are just as susceptible to making mistakes as anyone else, but these mistakes have the potential to be fatal when they affect the operation of such a large and powerful vehicle.

Train Crossing Accidents Involving Pedestrians

Perhaps those most at-risk in highway-rail crossing accidents are pedestrians. This is primarily because individuals stand little chance of survival against a train car going full speed down the tracks. There have been many instances of train-pedestrian accidents that have resulted from a lack of proper railroad maintenance and supervision. It is a common assumption that the pedestrians who were hit and killed or injured by a train were purposeful acts of suicide; however, this is not always the case. In fact, many such incidents are accidental.

A pedestrian train crossing accident may happen because:

  • The conductor failed to blow the train whistle to alert others of its arrival.
  • The crossing was not clearly marked.
  • The crossing signal was defective and failed to warn the pedestrian of an oncoming train.

In other cases, it could be due to a station's failure to properly employ professionals to maintain the order and safety of railroads. Even the derailment of a train car could quickly result in injury or death to nearby pedestrians.

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Train-on-Train Collisions

A train accident of any nature will likely result in massive destruction. When it is a collision between two rail vehicles, the adverse consequences will likely be amplified. An accident between train cars involves the colliding of two engine-powered machines moving at full speed with little or no time to slow down. Add this to the massive weight and sheer force of each moving vehicle, and you have the perfect recipe for disaster. This means that the likelihood of total destruction will be great.

Train-on-train accidents are different from other railroad mishaps in that they almost always could have been avoided. The industry has taken great measures to ensure that safe operating procedures are in place. This means that when two trains collide, it is most likely the result of one or more acts of reckless or negligent behaviors being taken by a train operator or conductor. When officials fail to follow operating policies or choose to ignore safety laws, they are not attending to their job responsibilities as they should be. While these may be minor offenses in other business sectors, within the train industry they could very quickly become public hazards that might lead to a railway accident.

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Railway Accidents & Trespassing

It is the responsibility of railroad owners and operators to ensure that every possible measure is taken to both educate and warn the public of the inherent dangers that are associated with railroad properties. It is also their responsibility to take all possible measures to secure their rail yards, switching yards, rail right-of-ways, train bridges, and all other railroad property from both willful and innocent trespassers.

While railroad companies are responsible for securing their property, trespass fatality is the number one cause of all railroad-related deaths. To kids and teenagers, the world is a playground. They don’t know or care who owns a particular piece of property, all they know is that it looks like a great place to play. Furthermore, adults may take advantage of the rail right-of-way to jog, ride bikes, fish, and walk on or near railroad tracks daily, without realizing that they are trespassing and endangering their lives and the lives of train crews.

In 2006, the Federal Railroad Administration reported that trespass fatalities increased by 14.5%.

If you or a family member have been injured in an accident on railroad property, the railroad company may be found liable for the injury if they didn't take sufficient measures to secure their property from trespass. If so, then you may be entitled to receive compensation for your injury or loss. Arnold & Itkin LLP can offer you the support and legal guidance you need during the difficult time following a railway accident.

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What You Need to Know When Filing a Train Accident Claim

It is an unfortunate fact that hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of individuals are injured or killed every year in catastrophic train accidents. While many factors can cause collisions and derailments, perhaps the most important thing to know after an accident is how to respond. Claims can be filed after any type of accident (train collisions included). Filing a claim could potentially help you acquire the compensation you need in order to recover after an accident—financially, medically, and emotionally.

However, this is can be a complex process and, as such, there are certain things you need to know before filing.

Know the Statute of Limitations

One of the most important aspects will be providing proof that your injuries resulted from the train accident. In any accident, there are time limitations that must be adhered to. Deciding to file a claim months or even years after an accident could greatly deter your chances of receiving compensation. Some of the most reliable sources of proof are police reports that document the accident and include your name in the documented information, eyewitnesses who can testify on your behalf, and expert witnesses who can speak to how your injuries will affect you over time.

Determine Who Is At Fault

A crucial part of a claim is the naming of the negligent party. Investigations can be done to determine the party at fault for the accident. In some cases, there’s more than one liable party. Train operators and conductors are often the persons at fault; however, the train company as a whole could be responsible, as could the manufacturing company of defective train products. Therefore, it will be essential for you to obtain the legal representation of a train accident attorney to help you determine where the blame should be placed.

Don’t Trust the Insurance Company

Keep in mind that insurance companies will not be eager to compensate you for your injuries, no matter how major or minor they may be. Insurance adjusters may use anything you tell them against you. Unfortunately, injured victims often innocently trust the insurance company with which they are working, only to be further hurt by a claims adjuster or other member of the company. Therefore, it is highly encouraged that you speak with an attorney before taking any action in your pursuit to file a claim on behalf of your injury.

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Train Accident FAQ

If I’m Injured in a Train Accident, Who Can I Make a Claim Against?

Train collision claims can be made against any person or organization responsible for the collision, including:

  • Track owner
  • Train manufacturer
  • Railroad company
  • Railroad operator
  • Light rail transit agencies
  • City/state operator and administrators

I Work for the Railroad. Can I Still Sue My Employer After a Train Accident?

Yes. If you are an injured railroad employee, FELA allows you to seek damages from your employer if your injuries were sustained as a result of the railroad's negligence or its failure to comply with certain basic train safety standards.

What’s Required of a Train’s Crew as They Approach a Public Grade Crossing?

The crew of a freight train must maintain a reasonable lookout and control over the vehicle as it approaches a railroad crossing. Depending on state and federal laws, they may have to decrease speed as a crossing nears, particularly in the presence of hazardous conditions.

Are There Safety Regulations That Control Railroad Crossings?

There and state and federal regulations in place that govern the safety of railroad crossings; however, safety devices such as lights, barriers, and audible warnings are not mandated for every railroad crossing. This determination is typically made by state regulatory agencies. It is interesting to note that only about 20% of railroad crossings in the United States employ warning lights and barriers.

Can I Walk, Jog, or Ride a Bike on Railroad Rights-of-Way?

No. Railroad rights-of-way are private property and are extremely dangerous.

What’s the Leading Cause of Non-Employee Railroad Fatalities?

The Federal Railroad Administration reported that in 2006, trespass fatalities, the #1 cause of all rail-related deaths, increased by 14.5% to 530. In addition to children playing near the tracks and on rail bridges, this includes those who jog, ride bikes, fish, and walk near or over tracks.

What Is “Negligence” & How Does It Apply to Train Accidents?

Negligence refers to blame assigned to an individual or entity that failed to exercise the level of responsible behavior required to prevent harm in a given circumstance. In the case of train accidents, negligence refers to the behavior of railroad employees, management, operators, and owners that contribute to train accidents and resulting injury and death. Negligence in these circumstances is often determined at trial by a jury.

Who Is Responsible for Railroad Safety Regulations?

The Federal Railroad Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Department of Transportation share regulatory responsibility for railroad safety. Each state has regulatory bodies that regulate and inspect railroad operations in their state.

Who Do I Contact If I Was Injured in a Train Accident?

If you have been injured in a train accident, it is important to contact an experienced attorney as quickly as possible. The wreckage of a train accident will only be preserved for a short time and sometimes those remains provide crucial clues as to the cause of the accident and the responsible party or parties. When you obtain representation from train accident attorneys like the team at Arnold & Itkin, we can work quickly to evaluate accident scenes, interview witnesses, examine grade crossings, and help determine liability before valuable evidence is lost or corrupted. Investigations such as these are often necessary to prove railroad accident claims, and most individuals do not have the time or resources necessary to properly examine the evidence, particularly when attempting to recover from an injury. For that reason, the attorneys at Arnold & Itkin obtain expert consultants to help prove your claim as soon as we are hired, allowing you to focus on your recovery process. If you are considering filing a railroad injury claim, we can help. Contact our office today for a free consultation.

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Choose a Leading Train Accident Law Firm

Companies are often reluctant to admit to liability in train accidents. Victims need qualified attorneys to make sure the train company bears responsibility for a catastrophic train accident and that the victims are fairly compensated. The operator of a train involved in an accident may be a government entity. Such operators may have successfully promoted the passage of tort claims act laws that affect train accidents. If this is the case, excellent legal counsel is imperative to negotiate the complex requirements of such cases.

At Arnold & Itkin, we have dedicated our careers to the protection and representation of personal injury victims throughout the country. Train accidents are a big part of our practice. Our successful track record is representative of the dedication and personal care we devote to each and every one of our clients. We know how difficult the time following an accident can be, especially when it involves the operating systems of a train company, and we are committed to helping our clients through it. We've taken the necessary steps to ensure we are up to date on all current laws regarding railway accidents, making us a force to be reckoned with when it comes to serious personal injury and railroad worker injury claims.

Contact a train accident lawyer from Arnold & Itkin to learn more about the ins and outs of filing a railroad accident claim. We're here to help.

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