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Should We Be Jittery About Train Travel?

The scene near Tacoma, Washington, after the derailment of an Amtrak high speed train on Dec. 18, 2017. Kathryn Elsesser/AFP/Getty Images

After two deadly Amtrak crashes in the past three months, are you rethinking the idea of train travel? Well don't. The spectacularly awful Amtrak accident near Tacoma, Washington, on Dec. 18, with its images of rail cars hanging from an overpass, would give the most fearless passenger a case of the jitters.

And things seemed to get worse with the deaths of two more people on Feb. 2, 2018, in another Amtrak crash in South Carolina. "It almost made me change my mind," passenger Phyllis Dunn told WTVD television station in Durham the day after the Tacoma crash. She was boarding a train in Raleigh, North Carolina and spoke to a reporter there.

But if she's like the rest of us, she'll get in a car without giving it a second thought. And that's pretty crazy because we are all far, far more likely to die in a car crash than a train crash.

The risk of dying in an automobile over your lifetime is actually one in 114, according to the rather morbid National Safety Council Odds of Dying Chart. (The council also includes such figures as the likelihood of dying by lighting and by legal execution.)

Trains are far safer than cars, says Allan Zarembski, professor at the University of Delaware and director of the Railroad Engineering and Safety Program. "I think people sort of ignore that," he says. "They're sort of inured to the risk of car accidents ... If you look at the number of people killed per million miles (1.6 million kilometers) of travel, it's about 20 to one" comparing cars and trains, he says.

Worry About the Highway, Not the Railway

In 2016, the latest year statistics are available, 37,461 people were killed on the U.S. highways, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. But only 733 people were killed in train-related accidents, according to the bureau. Even fewer — 412 — were killed in airline accidents.

But the railroad figures tell only part of the story. "You'll see that 95 percent [of rail-related deaths] have nothing to do with the number of passengers killed in accidents," Zarembski says.

That's because most railroad deaths come from people trespassing on railroad property or from collisions at rail crossings, he says. Zarembski cites figures from the Federal Railroad Administration Office of Safety Analysis, which show 777 railway deaths in 2016. Among them, 479 were "trespassers," such as people walking on the tracks, and 260 occurred at rail crossings. "People like to take a short cut," he says.

Only eight of the railway deaths were train passengers. "It's a bad year if 10 passengers are killed," Zarembski says. The total number of railroad deaths is generally less than 1,000 per year, he said.

An economist at Northwestern University, Ian Savage, calculated the fatality rate per miles traveled on various modes of transportation. His research covers data from 2000 to 2009, but it remains important because it provides an average over nine years based on miles traveled.

Savage found that flying was the safest mode of travel, followed by bus, subway and railroad.

His figures (in deaths per billion miles):

  • Motorcyle: 212.57
  • Car: 7.28
  • Ferry: 3.17
  • Rail: 0.43
  • Transit Rail: 0.24
  • Bus: 0.11
  • Plane: 0.07

A person would be 17 times more likely to die while traveling in a car than on a train for the same distance, according to Savage. And 100 times more likely than traveling on a plane for the same distance.

His findings also reveal an important tidbit about motorcycles: Think twice about riding them. Or three times, if not four.

The chance of dying for a motorcyclist traveling 15 miles (24 kilometers) every day for a year was an "astonishing" one in 860, Savage says. The motorcycle fatality rate per passenger mile was 29 times that for automobiles and light trucks, he found.

Misplaced Fear

Since planes are actually the safest form of travel, and trains are also very safe, why do people seem to think they are more dangerous? News coverage may be one reason, according to Brad Plumer, writing in Vox. And the recent reporting on the Amtrak accidents, splashed all over the internet, riveted attention on the deaths and injuries. The deaths that occur daily in car crashes don't get similar attention.

But take heart. Travel has become far safer over the years, especially on planes and trains. The risk of auto accidents has fallen by half over the past 35 years.

But don't get too comfortable — have you heard about driverless cars?