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Top 4 Explanations Why Trains Derail

The massive size of the train, the number of people trains carry, and the high speeds the trains are moving at make trains highly deadly in the event of derailments or railroad crossing accidents.

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Train Accidents Hurt Everyone

train collision derailment
Train accidents are not only dangerous for the passengers inside the train but also for pedestrians, other vehicles, and property outside of the train.
Ultimate Guide to Understanding Train Derailments
Although most train systems are autonomous, human intervention still needs human intervention, which can lead to human errors, exponentially increasing the risk of fatal train accidents. The negligence of a single train driver or operator can be highly costly in terms of human lives and property damage. There are chances for events to go wrong no matter how accurate the systems are. A train carrying toxic material can be really dangerous for the environment and the nearby residents in case of a derailment. In 2008 in Louisiana, a train carrying hydrochloric acid derailed, spilling more than 10,000 gallons of harmful chemicals into the area and displacing thousands of people as they started to vacate their homes for safer grounds. At Ehline Law Firm, we not only empower our attorneys by mentoring and guiding them on the best legal practices, but we also refer injured victims seeking the best legal representation for their injuries to a trusted, experienced, and reputable attorney.

Train Accident Statistics

Train accidents, including derailments, collisions, and other types of train accidents, kill one person every 100 minutes. Train accidents can kill about 1,000 people annually in the United States.

It’s unbelievable, but more than half of the train accidents occur at unprotected rail crossings in the country, and 80% of all rail crossings lack adequate warning devices. We’ve heard of multiple cases of semi-trucks, big rigs, and even passenger cars getting smashed by trains due to inadequate warning signs or unprotected crossings.

It’s also surprising to know that a freight train carrying hazardous chemicals or materials derails in this country every two weeks. This displaces nearby residents and has serious implications for the environment, especially causing groundwater pollution, which can further harm individuals depending on that source of water to live.

Train Derailments in the United States

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) reported 9,240 train derailments in the county during the period from 2010 to 2016. In 2016, statistics showed 1,149 derailments, about 212 fewer than the previous year.

During the same period, California witnessed 444 train derailments, with 2016 statistics showing 59 derailments, 11 lower than the previous year.

Accidents can be catastrophic with the sheer size of the train and the speed at which it travels. In 2016, the FRA recorded 787 deaths from train accidents across the country, with 156 deaths alone in California.

The 1918 Devastating Train Wreck: The Worst Rail Accident in US History

Dubbed the worst rail accident in US history, the 1918 train wreck shook the nation as millions across the country heard about the aftermath of the passenger train accident on the radio and in the newspapers.

We’ve all heard about trains derailing and crashing into automobiles, but we’ve only witnessed head-on train collisions in movies. Unfortunately, on July 9th, 1918, two trains collided heads-on on the NC & StL railway line while traveling at 60 mph. The collision occurred on a railroad section known as the “Dutchman’s Curve.”

On the morning of July 9th, the No. 4 train departed Nashville for Memphis, while the No. 1 left Memphis for Nashville, a half-hour behind schedule. Due to miscommunication between train operators and the towers, both the trains headed towards each other as they entered a single track on Dutchman’s Curve at the same time.

Around 7.30 am the trains collided at a 60 mph head-on collision, causing the other cars to derail off the track. Since this was 1918, passenger cars were made from wood, and the accident’s impact completely destroyed them, instantly killing 101 people and seriously injuring 171.

The great train wreck of 1918 forced Americans to rethink train designs and safety devices. It was the last time train companies in America ever used wooden passenger cars.

Recent Train Derailment Accidents

The Deadly Montana Derailment

On September 26, 2021, passengers boarded the Amtrak train service from Chicago to Seattle when an unfortunate incident occurred at around 4 pm local time, causing injuries and loss of lives. A few of the passenger carriages derailed from the tracks near the small town of Joplin, Montana.

The derailment resulted in carriages tipping over on their sides, causing serious injuries to passengers inside the train. As media and authorities arrived to carry out rescue operations, they saw some carriages on their side with luggage thrown around. At the same time, those who did not suffer any injuries were trying their best to help those in trouble.

The train had a total of 144 passengers and 16 crew members. The Montana derailment killed three people and injured over a dozen passengers. Some passengers could save themselves from injuries by holding onto coffee tables, and their seats as the train derailed. But those sleeping on the train did not have enough time to secure themselves, resulting in injuries from the tip-over. The passengers explained that the accident felt like extreme turbulence on a plane.

The first responders started to help out the injured passengers, and the US National Transportation Safety Board announced an investigation into the deadly Montana derailment.

The 2015 Philadelphia Disaster

On May 12, 2015, a train departing from Washington, D.C. to New York with 238 passengers and eight crew members derailed near Kensington in Philadelphia. The accident resulted in eight deaths and over 200 injuries, making it one of the deadliest train accidents in modern history.

Many passengers helped first responders by getting stuck, injured passengers out of the train for medical help. More than 200 injured passengers received treatment in five nearby hospitals, and the derailment resulted in disrupted train services for several days.

An investigation into the incident revealed that the train was touching speeds of 100 mph on a 50 mph corner. The National Transportation Safety Board identified the cause of the derailment as a distracted train driver. They stated that the driver was too distracted to pay attention to the radio transmissions, causing him to lose situational awareness.

The officials mentioned that the accident would’ve never happened if there had been positive train control, a system for monitoring train movement, and a computerized speed-limiting system that was implemented on other routes but, due to regulatory requirements, faced implementation delays on this particular route.

Unfortunately, the investigation also revealed that the track did not have an automatic train control (ATC), an older system used to control train speeds according to external inputs. If the ATC systems were already present on the northbound track, they would limit the train’s speed before the curve, helping prevent the accident from happening in the first place.

After the investigation, the law enforcement authorities arrested the 32-year-old train driver for negligence, and the court charged him with the following charges:

  • Eight counts of involuntary manslaughter
  • 238 counts of reckless endangerment
  • One count of causing a catastrophe

Spilled Fuel onto Tracks

On March 16, 2022, around 7.30 pm, the local River Falls police received a call of a train derailment resulting in 300 gallons of spilled diesel fuel onto the tracks. When the police arrived at the scene of the accident, they saw a train that had come off its tracks.

When the police inquired about the incident, the train driver stated that the train collided with a log that had fallen onto the tracks at a low speed. The log resulted in the train’s derailment, causing punctures in the 1,800-gallon diesel fuel tank.

There were no injuries, but Castro called upon an expert environmental clean-up company to remove the oil spill and clear the tracks for other trains. At the same time, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection would be conducting groundwater tests to determine whether the oil spill had an effect on the groundwater supply.

The Top 4 Causes of Train Derailment

The incidents mentioned are some of the few derailment incidents with injuries or more significant environmental impact than the many other train derailments that occur across the country. Train derailments are more common than you would like to believe, resulting in serious injuries and even deaths.

Here are the top 4 explanations for why trains derail.

Track Related Issues

According to train accident statistics, broken or cracked rail and welds contribute to more than half of the train derailment accidents in the country.

A traditional track structure consists of two pieces of track supported on transverse sleepers. However, some advanced track structures support the tracks on concrete slabs. Train tracks can become weak over time, especially at points where the rails join together with the help of a weld.

Poor workmanship, freezing weather, or improper stressing of continuously welded rails can cause the welds to break open, increasing the risk of a dangerous derailment.

The disturbances in the rail running surface due to a piece falling or getting lodged in an incorrect location can cause a train to derail. There are also chances of gauge corner cracking leading to metallurgical changes under fatigue loading.

The derailment also occurs when there is excessive gauge widening. Guage widening is a slow process; if not properly monitored, it can result in derailment. An extremely wide gauge requires one final failure, such as high speeds, rail misalignment, and extreme traction effects, to cause a derailment.

The guidance system on practical railway vehicles relies on physics, using steering effects on moderate curves. When a train moves around a corner, the vertical wheel load puts enough pressure on the train to keep it on the tracks. If the wheel experiences lateral force greater than the vertical wheel load towards the outside of the curve, it will cause the wheel to climb onto the railhead, causing the train to experience a flange climbing derailment.

Equipment Failure

Equipment failure is also one of the leading causes of train derailments in the country. These can include defective wheels, locomotive bearing, car bearing, suspension, and other car defects and failures. An accident can still happen if the train’s employees follow all the necessary safety procedures.

In the early 1900s, defective wheels were the most common historical failure mode, but with modern technologies, there is a reduction in the incidence of such failures. Due to insufficient lubrication, a train’s plain bearings may collapse, resulting in a derailment. Although mechanical failure is less common than other causes of accidents, they do happen occasionally.

Trains are large moving machines that require constant support from towers and control rooms. Any small mechanical failure, like a loose bolt or a rail signal failure, can lead to a train accident.

Human Errors

Human error and negligence are also major causes of train derailments in the country. Although these don’t occur that often, the unfortunate reality is that these accidents are preventable.

Human errors can include the following:

  • Speeding when there is a clear indication to slow down.
  • Failing to comply with safety signs, signals, and regulations.
  • Failing to communicate with the train operator properly.
  • Failing to comply with switches and mainline rules.
  • Forcing drivers to work long hours non-stop causes fatigue.

Sometimes a railroad accident occurs because of the train company’s fault for not following safety regulations, while other times, train accidents occur because of employee negligence. Failure to operate the crossing arm properly or failure to turn on the signal light are examples of railway negligence.

One major factor contributing to these types of human negligence is the use of old technology. Better railway technologies are already in place on certain tracks, but since these technologies require a hefty investment, adopting these safety features is often put on hold.

For example, Congress required class 1 mainlines, which are railway lines used to transport hazardous materials and/or passenger cars, to implement Positive Train Control (PTC), systems designed to prevent train collisions, speed derailments, and other types of accidents by monitoring the train’s movements.

However, more than 66% of the commuter railroads failed to implement PTC due to limited budgets.

Fatigue is also a major concern, leading to human errors. Whether the train driver has substantial experience or is fairly new, fatigue is shared across all levels of expertise. Train companies often pressure their employees to operate the trains even if they’re exhausted. This is sheer negligence as there are rules in place that mention the maximum number of hours a train driver can operate a train in a day.

Not all train accidents are because of human error on behalf of the company or the driver. Train accidents can also occur because of human error on the part of pedestrians and vehicle drivers. Train accidents can happen because drivers or pedestrians cross the track at the wrong time. It can also occur when vehicle drivers act recklessly by beating the train across a railroad crossing.

Environmental Factors

When looking at the sheer size of the train, we often believe that trains are not affected by environmental factors such as rain, storms, and snow, unlike cars. However, that is not the case.

The train tracks in the United States not only move through the dense forest but also around mountains, into valleys, and across deserts. Extreme changes in weather conditions can increase the risk of system failure.

For example, extremely high heat during the day and cooler weather at night can cause expansion and contraction of train tracks, resulting in damaged or broken rails. Higher winds or snowfall can cause trees to fall onto rail tracks and snow avalanches to bury the tracks. Any contact with obstacles on the train track can increase the chances of derailment.

A conductor is often aware of the train’s surroundings, looking to identify broken rails or any obstacles in the path and pulling on the emergency brakes to prevent an accident. However, at times, a conductor may fail to see a barrier in time to avoid a collision from happening.

Other Causes of Train Accidents

We’ve discussed the top four causes of train accidents: track-related issues, equipment failure, human error, and environmental factors. However, other causes of train accidents happen in the United States.

It’s unfortunate, but many people take their own lives by standing on the tracks and waiting for the train to run them over or jumping in front of a moving train. According to federal statistics, in 2017, there were 266 people killed as a result of stepping in front of trains.

When a train conductor spots a person at the last moment, they might pull on the emergency brakes to prevent running them down. If train brakes suddenly, it is hard on passengers, as braking at high speeds can cause passenger injuries. Emergency braking on an empty freight vehicle can momentarily lift the vehicle, causing train derailment.

Sometimes it is not a train’s mechanical failure that causes an accident but an engine failure in another car, causing it to stall on the tracks. It’s rare to see a car stuck at railroad crossings, but when drivers slow down when crossing, a poorly tuned engine can cause the vehicle to stall. In such situations, there may not be enough time to push the vehicle away. A moving train will usually push the vehicle out of its path or split it in half, but if the vehicle goes under the train, it can cause it to derail.

Train Accident Liability

Under the Department of Transportation Act of 1966, the FRA is responsible for monitoring and taking safety measures to prevent train accidents. Railroad companies and commuter rail lines have the legal obligation to ensure the safety of all their passengers.

These parties must also install a black box on a train, a device that continuously records information. This is useful when investigating a train accident to understand what happened so that they can take the necessary steps to prevent it from happening again in the future.

Although the railway is responsible for ensuring the safety of all passengers, it may not always carry out its responsibility. But as we’ve already discussed, railway companies or their employees may not always be the cause of an accident. You must speak to a train accident attorney to determine the party at fault and help you recover compensation for your loss.

What Should I Do After a Train Derailment?

If you or your loved ones suffer from serious injuries due to a train derailment, you must contact a personal injury lawyer. You face a challenging and uncertain future with serious injuries impacting your life, but an attorney can help you recover compensation. Although compensation will not undo the accident or injuries or bring back your loved ones, it can help you rebuild a more stable future.

Under the law, injured victims due to the negligent actions of others may be eligible for compensation. However, it can be challenging to determine who the at-fault party is. It could be an employee or railway company’s negligence, the negligence of a government entity for misaligned tracks, or a manufacturer’s negligence for providing defected train products. An attorney can allocate resources to investigate the train accident and help determine who the negligent party is so that they can pursue legal action against them to recover compensation for your loss.

If you are looking to learn more or are a victim of a train derailment accident and want a trusted attorney for legal representation, contact us at + (888) LETS-SUE or email us at info@ehlinelaw.com.


Michael Ehline

Top rated injury lawyer, Michael Ehline in Tuxedo Suit

Michael is a managing partner at the nationwide Ehline Law Firm, Personal Injury Attorneys, APLC. He’s an inactive Marine and became a lawyer in the California State Bar Law Office Study Program, later receiving his J.D. from UWLA School of Law. Michael has won some of the world’s largest motorcycle accident settlements and he can help you get the compensation you deserve for sure.


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