Are trains safe for travel? Experts say yes

The Amtrak derailment Monday was the second major incident in as many days for the passenger rail line.

At least three people were killed and dozens were injured in the incident, which followed a Sunday crash that also left three dead and three more injured, according to authorities. 

The accidents may raise questions about the safety of train travel. While flying on an airplane is the safest mode of long-distance travel, according to the International Air Transport Association, trains are your best option on the ground.

 Allan Zarembski, a professor at the University of Delaware and director of its Railway Engineering and Safety Program, told USA TODAY that of "ground transportation modes," trains are the safest.

At least 3 dead, 40 injured:Amtrak train derails after hitting dump truck in Missouri, authorities say

Higher speed rail service:Amtrak's Acela trains will reach up to 150 mph in New Jersey

Is a train safer than a car?

Zarembski told USA TODAY that traveling by train is "dramatically" safer than by car.

"If you're a passenger in a train, you're extremely safe," he said. 

Warren Flatau, a spokesperson for the Federal Railroad Administration, told USA TODAY in an email, "The vast majority of rail-related deaths in the U.S. are attributable to highway-rail grade crossing collisions and trespass events" or  "tragic deaths involving motorists who most often try to beat a train at a crossing, or individuals struck on foot while illegally trespassing on train tracks."

According to FRA data, three passengers were killed in train accidents or crossing incidents in 2021, and none were killed in the two years prior. Those numbers exclude other transit including subways and light rail.

By comparison, nearly 43,000 people were killed on U.S. roads last year – the highest number of traffic fatalities in 16 years –  according to preliminary figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released in May. Final numbers will be released in the fall.

Zarembski noted that deadly car crashes get far less prominent media coverage than train accidents, even though they are more common. "If there's a train accident, that almost always makes national news," he said.

What are the dangers of trains?

Carl Berkowitz, a transportation engineer, and transportation safety expert, noted there have been cases in which a defect in the track led to a derailment, or instances when trains have traveled too fast around a curve.

But he said technological safeguards have been implemented to prevent such scenarios, including Positive Train Control, which is designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, over-speed derailments, and more.

"Ca you have a broken rail derailment, can you have a broken wheel derailment? The answer is yes," added Zarembski. "How rare are they? They're extremely rare."

How common is a train derailment?

Zarembski said the kind of Amtrak derailment that took place Monday, which involved a heavier vehicle, is "very, very, very unusual." 

Eight of the train's cars and two locomotives came off the tracks "after striking a truck that was obstructing a public crossing" close to Mendon, Missouri, as it traveled from Los Angeles to Chicago, Amtrak said in a statement

He said about 50% of all derailments are yard derailments, which he said usually happen at low speeds with minimal damage.

Overall, Zarembski said, passenger train operations are "extremely safe."