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Daily Archives: December 24, 2015

Track Defects and Human Error Cause Most Train Accidents

A new study of federal rail records has found that most train accidents are due to track problems and human error, according to The Columbus Dispatch.

Some of those accidents and derailments have involved oil trains, but rather than focus on rail improvements and engineer training, US regulators continue to focus on beefing up tanker cars instead.

After several dozen crashes, derailments and oil spills in the last few years, rail authorities in Washington DC have enacted new regulations that will make oil tanker cars more robust. While this is seen as a good thing by many, the oil tanker cars themselves do not cause most of the accidents.

According to the former director of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration Brigham McCown, the first responsibility of the government and rail companies should be to prevent the accident in the first place.

The study conducted by the newspaper in Columbus OH found the following:

  • 1/3 of train crashes in the last 20 years were at least partly due to track problems, including splits in the rail or a bad joint.
  • About 1/3 of the crashes were due to human error. These errors include an engineer nodding off as the train flies past a stop signal, or a worker not setting a brake properly.
  • Most of the other accidents reported to the Federal Railroad Administration were due to mechanical, electrical and signal issues.

The study stressed that as more trains are moving more oil by tanker car across the US, there should be a greater emphasis on improving train worker training, as well as beefing up rail line inspections by the Federal Railroad Administration. Railroads say that they are investing in better rail inspection technology, and also are purchasing better detectors that are installed along tracks.

While our rail accident attorneys based in Virginia appreciate the federal government’s efforts to improve oil tanker cars, it should be demanding that railroad companies enact tougher rail inspections. It also should pass new regulations that toughen training standards for all train engineers.

Railroads will always try to minimize their costs in any way possible, either on rail safety or in pay outs to victims in personal injury lawsuits. They always need to be closely regulated to ensure safety of the public.

We once had a $60 million verdict involving a Norfolk Southern train that derailed and smashed into a gas station, which led to severe and permanent injuries for our client. After a year of denying responsibility, the railroad finally admitted its culpability in the tragedy.

It took a lot of work on our part to get that verdict, but that is sometimes what it takes to get railroads to admit their role in derailments. Hopefully, tougher regulations on rail safety and engineer training in the future will reduce the likelihood of these types of accidents.