Just How Likely Are You To Die on A Commuter Train?

Monday, December 02, 2013 - 04:48 PM

Long Island Railroad train barrels through a crossing. (ynkefan1/flickr)

The terrifying Metro-North commuter train derailment on Sunday might make some hesitant to get back on the rails any time soon – particularly as it comes just months after two Metro-North trains collided near Fairfield, Conn. leaving 123 people hurt.

But federal railroad data shows such accidents are rare – even for Metro-North, which seems to be having a really rough year.

WNYC looked at data from the Federal Railroad Administration, which regulates freight, passenger and commuter railroads nationwide. The data shows accidents through Sept. 2013.*

Over the last two decades for every 1,000,000,000 train passengers, seven have have died.  

Here’s what we found looking at commuter trains other than Amtrak:

  • Nationwide from 1993 though September, 58 passengers aboard a commuter train died in an accident.
  • Before Sunday’s derailment, the last passenger fatality on a commuter train was on Sept. 12, 2008 when 25 people – including 24 passengers – died. They were aboard a Southern California Regional Rail Authority train that ran a red light and collided with a freight train.
  • The last derailment that led to a passenger fatality was on Sept. 17, 2005 when a Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter Rail Corp. train failed to comply with a mandatory speed reduction. Two passengers died and 150 were injured.
  • There were 33, 561 traffic fatalities in 2012, alone.

As for Metro-North, despite the high-profile accidents this year the railroad has been reporting fewer problems over the past decade. The railroad reported 70 train accidents in 2003 as compared to 11 last year. That includes minor accidents where no one was injured. In the first nine months of this year Metro-North reported eight accidents.

The railroad's rate of accidents doesn't seem all that remarkable compared to other commuter lines. This year through September, Metro-North reported 1.05 accidents per one million miles its trains traveled. That’s higher than the Long Island Railroad’s 0.63 accidents per million miles but less than half the 2.14 accidents New Jersey Transit Rail Operations reported.

(*Note that this database includes suburban commuter rail, not metropolitan rapid transit systems like Washington, DC's Metro or San Francisco's BART)


    Comments [6]

    Peter Laws

    You cannot compare *death rate* to *number of deaths*.

    LOTS more traffic fatalities, yes (even if the number and rate are significantly lower than they were 40 years ago) but also lots more people in cars.

    And you didn't even try to separate out journey-to-work automobile trips as was done for trains.

    Useless information of the worst kind, IMHO.

    Also, what the he** is an "accident" in railway terms? A derailment? A collision? If their is operator negligence or organizational negligence (failure to repair a known defect, say) is it still an "accident"? Obviously not.

    But then you use them to compare MNCR and NJT? At least you used rates for both.

    Please think about words before commiting them to paper.

    Dec. 10 2013 02:39 PM
    bobprevidi from Philadelphia, PA

    The first reason you don't want to use the middle track is that you don't want to punish #1 riders for a Hudson Line issue. The #1 carries 1/4 million a day, one tenth what the Hudson Line carries. Most Hudson Line riders will react to the news by working from home, using the Harlem Line, going in later so of the 26000 daily riders maybe 12,000 will show up and that will be spread out over the course of the day. No need to over react to the demand.

    Dec. 03 2013 09:44 AM
    Seth Foster

    This article would be far more interesting and useful as a statistical comparison to, say driving or other regional rail systems, if the research went a step further. Tell the reader the number of injuries and deaths per thousands or millions of passenger trips. Otherwise the stats are raw and without any context.

    Dec. 03 2013 09:21 AM
    Gary S from Hillsborough, NJ

    I found it (sadly) interesting that some of the interviewed survivors perceived the duration of the crash as being in "minutes" or, "seemed to be going on in slow motion forever". In actuality, the entire crash is reported to have taken 6 seconds. Think of it, 1,,,,,2,,,,,3,,,,,4,,,,,5,,,,,6. Done!

    Dec. 03 2013 08:41 AM
    schreefer from NyC

    Why not use the center express track on the #1 train from 242nd Street to optimize transfers?

    Dec. 03 2013 08:32 AM
    schreefer from NyC

    Why not use the center express track on the #1 train from 242nd Street to optimize transfers?

    Dec. 03 2013 08:32 AM

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