How safe is traveling by train?
After a Metro North train crashed into a Mercedes SUV at a Valhalla railroad crossing, tragically killing the SUV’s driver and five passengers on the train, many commuters said they would never ride in the front car of a train again.
Experts, however, say that all crashes are different and that one section of the train isn’t necessarily safer or more dangerous than another. While it may be no comfort to commuters, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Railroad Administration, statistically you’re much more likely to get hurt or killed in a car accident driving to the station than you are riding on the train, no matter where you sit. In 2013, the latest year that the Federal Railroad Association Office of Safety reported their statistics, while 759 deaths were attributed to rail transportation (and about 500 of those were pedestrians or drivers who stopped on railroad tracks), that number pales in comparison to the 32,367 people who were killed in car accidents.
While the final investigation of the Metro North tragedy won’t be completed for many months, initial reports agree that the Valhalla wreck was a highly unusual in that the third rail pierced the bottom of the train.
Is the front car more dangerous?
The first car of a train isn’t always the one that hits a car in a crossing, and in most cases when a train hits a car, the train doesn’t sustain a lot of damage.
Sean Gail, vice president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, said he was unaware of any research or data on the safest place to sit on trains. “I think it depends on the incident. When you start looking at high-profile crashes, you see that deaths and injuries can occur in any car of a train,” he said.
Logic says that if the front of a train hits a car, passengers in the front train car have the greatest chance of getting injured, Gail said.
“But if your train hits the back of another train that’s stopped on the tracks, passengers in the last car of the train that’s not moving are more likely to get hurt,” he said, adding that that was the case in a 2009 Washington Metro crash which killed nine people and injured 80.
Legal rights of those injured in train accidents
Obviously, train accidents are incredibly destructive events. The collision of a car and a train is comparable to the collision of a car and a soda can — the size and weight of a train moving, even at what might seem to be slower speeds, result in a physical impact that is truly devastating. All forms of train accidents, be they truck/train accidents, train/car accidents, derailments or pedestrian/train accidents, are quite capable of producing catastrophic injuries and death.
Having represented both passengers and railroad workers for nearly three decades, we have witnessed first-hand that victims of railroad accidents are most often not treated fairly by the Railroads. Railroad companies are notorious for denying responsibility, particularly at railroad crossings, making this form of litigation a complicated arena. Railroad workers are often blamed for their own accidents, notwithstanding the Federal Employee Liability Act which gives workers certain rights that other employees don’t have.
Victims’ lawyers must analyze the facts of each accident to determine the degree to which a railroad company (vs. a car that is stuck at a crossing) was responsible, and what sort of compensation victims are entitled to from a settlement or trial.
In the case of the recent Metro North train accident, just because the train struck the vehicle does not automatically mean that the conductor or engineer of the train was at fault. A full investigation by the NTSF must be completed before any conclusions can be reached regarding the liability of Metro North and the driver of the SUV. However, every injured person should know that New York State has strict statute of limitations within which to commence a lawsuit against Metro North. In the case of those who were killed, the law demands that a summons and complaint be filed within two years of the wrongful death. In the cases of those who sustained serious injuries, a complaint must be filed within three years of the accident.