Is railroad travel safer? If you look at the number of annual fatalities of train passengers and motor vehicle fatalities, far more Americans die on U.S. roadways than on its railroads.
Passenger train fatalities are very rare. The disastrous Monday night derailment of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia that has resulted in at least 7 casualties is enough to make 2015 the 6th most fatal year for passengers since 1990. A table of passenger train fatalities compiled by the United States Bureau of Transportation Statistics can be found here.
Highway fatalities have decreased since 1980, but have still averaged to be more than 30,000 annually in recent years. In 2012, there were 33,782 highway fatalities. In the same year there were 5 passenger fatalities on the nation’s railroads.
It seems common sense that your safer traveling on a train than on the highway. However, the low number of fatalities on railways appears to have far more to do with how few people travel by train than whether or not the method is safer.
In that same year, 2012, there were 1.2 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles. There were, however, 4.7 fatalities per 100 million railroad miles, a rate that’s nearly 4 times higher.
Does this make train travel less safe than highways? Not necessarily. The fatality rate per 100 million miles can vary a great deal from a single accident in a year. In 1993, a terrible train crash in which a boat hit a trestle sin Alabama, sending a passenger train into the bayou below resulting in 42 deaths. That year saw a total of 58 passenger fatalities and a death rate per 100,000 miles of 77.3.
Furthermore, train miles are not measured exactly the same as they are for cars. One car moving one mile is a vehicle mile, where train miles are measured per train regardless of how many cars are attached to it. A train carrying two passenger cars is measured the same as another carrying 10. In other words, the comparison is not exactly apples to apples.
In a Bureau of Transportation Statistics chart comparing commuting methods, 76.3 percent of working people drive themselves to work. Another 9.7 carpool. A whopping 86 percent of us use a car to get work while to work while only 5 percent take trains. We’re simply not traveling far enough and in numbers enough to really make a fair comparison. But the fact remains that there are far fewer deaths on our railroads every year than on our highways.