2013 to see slight uptick in train crashes

The number of train accidents reported to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is on pace for only a slight increase from 2012 to 2013, despite the spate of crashes on the New York Metro-North commuter railway.

Lawmakers and transportation safety advocates pointed out that a crash last Sunday of a Metro-North train that derailed after traveling 52 miles over the speed limit was the railway’s fourth high-profile accident in 2013.

But all the publicity doesn't mean 2013 will have more crashes than the year before.

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An analysis by The Hill of statistics compiled by the railway safety agency shows that there were 10,918 crashes from January to December 2012. This year, 8,327 train accidents were reported from January to September, which is the last month of data that available.

If the 2013 pace matches 2012, there will be 10,956 train accidents this year, an increase of only 38 incidents from last year.

Of all the train accidents that have been recorded thus far in 2013, 107 have been collisions and 924 have been derailments, according to the FRA statistics.  In the full calendar year of 2012, there were 154 train collisions and 1,284 derailments.

The FRA estimates that there have been 6.84 incidents involving rail passengers being injured per 100,000,000 miles of train trips this year, compared to 7.34 in 2012.

American Public Transportation (APTA) President Michael Melaniphy said the agency’s statistics matched what he was seeing on the railway agencies that are members of his association.

“By every measure, commuting by rail is one of the safest ways to travel and the commuter rail industry is unequivocally committed to implementing innovative safety technologies,” Melaniphy said in a statement this week calling for more Congressional funding for automated train technology.

The Hill’s analysis of rail accident statistics revealed that 2013 has been relatively quiet year for the Washington, D.C. area's commuter rail systems, the Maryland MARC and Virginia VRE railways.

The MARC carries 32,800 passengers on an average weekday on its 182-mile track network, while the VRE railway carries an average of 20,000 passengers on a daily basis on its 90-mile track network

The systems, which are the ninth and tenth largest commuter railways in the U.S., reported 26 incidents on the MARC and four incidents on the VRE this year.

The MARC’s 2013 incidents, which included one derailment, have resulted in one passenger fatality and 16 injuries.

The VRE reported that it has no derailments or collisions and no passenger injuries or fatalities. Four employees were hurt in incidents this year, however, according to the VRE’s report.

The Metro-North is the fourth-largest commuter railway in the U.S., trailing only its New York counterpart the Long Island Railroad, the Chicago Metra railway and the New Jersey Transit system.

The Metro-North carries 281,331 passengers on an average weekday over a 384-mile rail system.

The Metro-North has reported 169 incidents to the FRA this year, including three derailments, three fatalities and 120 passenger injuries, not including last Sunday’s crash.

Obama administration officials defended the safety of the U.S. rail industry on Friday, even as they moved to require the Metro-North to make changes to its signaling systems to ensure that trains were operating within speed limits.

FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo said the number of train crashes today was a lot lower than it was 10 years ago.

“Last year was the safest on record for our nation’s rail industry,” Szabo said in a statement. “Even with a 43 percent decline in train accidents nation-wide over the past decade, we must remain steadfast and vigilant to ensure passengers and employees are safe. The public deserves better and our mission is to drive continuous safety improvement.”

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx added that the Obama administration was stepping in to reassure Metro-North passengers.

“Safety is our highest priority, and we must do everything we can to learn from this tragic crash and help prevent future derailments,” Foxx said in a statement. “While we assist the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in carrying out its investigation, this Emergency Order will help ensure that other Metro-North trains travel at appropriate, safe speeds.”

The latest Metro-North accident has renewed calls for implementing an automated rail operation system known as Positive Train Control.

Supporters of the automated train technology have argued that it would have prevented Sunday’s crash because computers would have realized the train was traveling too fast as it was approaching a sharp curve.

Congress has mandated that all railways install the automated technology by 2015. However, some rail companies, including Metro-North, had argued that the deadline should be delayed because of the cost of implementing the system.

The automated technology does not have a perfect record either. The system came under fire when it was blamed for failing during a 2009 collision of two trains on the Washington, D.C., Metrorail subway system. That crash resulted in nine deaths and led to the capital subway returning to manual control of trains, a decision which has still not been reversed.