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

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)