Even though flying is still believed to be the safest mode of travel, with the death risk for passengers of commercial airlines being one in forty-five million flights, compared to the risk of dying in a train crash being one in 156,169, trains could become the safest way to travel, especially if some of the recent innovations to railroad safety are universally implemented.
Specially equipped freight cars pass over railroad tracks as sensors gather multiple data points on their condition. Rail-side detectors scan passing rail cars to evaluate their integrity. Trackside ultrasonic technology identifies internal flaws in passing wheels. These are just a few of the new technologies that have been developed to ensure rail security and prevent accidents, as chronicled in this recent article over on Inbound Logistics.
Widespread adoption of these, and other, safety technologies could result in 2012, which was the safest year ever in the United States for rail according to the AAR (Association of American Railroads), being the 10th most safest year by 2022 and make accidents a rarer occurrence than they are in aviation. According to the FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) Office of Safety Analysis, there were 10,918 rail incidents in 2012, of which 662 were fatal. Incidents include train accidents, highway-rail incidents, and other incidents. The total number of train accidents were 1,743, of which 5 were fatal. The primary causes were human factors (656), track defects (577), and equipment defects (205) with signal defects and miscellaneous causes accounting for the remaining (305) accidents. More automation and safety systems can eliminate the amount of human involvement required, greatly reducing the number of accidents due to human factors, and better monitoring systems would detect the vast majority of track, signal, and equipment failures before they led to incidents. After all, there’s a finite amount of track (of 138,565 miles in the US), a finite number of crossings, and a finite number of trains on those tracks, which can only be in one location at any time. Good automated control systems can eliminate crossing and switching incidents and head-on collisions, and better monitoring that detects 98%+ of defects before they lead to accidents will reduce the accident rate, at least on track, by 98%. The highway crossings will still be an issue, especially if a driver is dumb enough to race the lights, but more crossing bars will help there as well. It might be the case that highway crossings prevent train travel from ever being safer than airline travel, statistically speaking, but there’s no reason that rail (only) incidents can’t be all but eliminated with better technology.
Especially now that there is the incentive to do so! As the Inbound Logistics article on where safety and innovation converge points out, railroads are experiencing a competitive resurgence as an energy-efficient freight transportation option, and this means a lot of money is being pumped into rail, and this amount will increase as time goes on as operating efficiencies can make rail more competitive than truck for trips as short as 500 miles! In addition, with the increasing densification of (mega) cities, and (mega) regions that cluster multiple (mega) cities, it will soon be that the only option left for efficient transport of people will be high-speed rail. North America will have no choice but to bite the bullet and build high-speed rail systems in order to maintain its geographic competitiveness, or the best and brightest from its talent pool will migrate to growing (mega) cities and (mega) regions in Europe and Asia, especially in the finance and technology industries where time is money and people can’t afford to sit in traffic for three or four hours a day (as the net result is a complete sacrifice of their personal life).
And if railroads don’t keep up with safety improvements on their own, because of the money involved, legislation will eventually help them along. For example, legislation passed in 2008 requires that all railroads implement positive train control (PTC) technology on main lines used to transport passengers and toxic-by-inhalation material by 2015. This technology, designed to automatically stop or slow a train before certain types of accidents occur, should go a long way towards reducing fatal accidents.
But it sounds like legislation isn’t required, as the rail industry is already pushing for stricter safety standards than the government requires. One example, as outlined in the Inbound Logistics article, is that the AAR Tank Car Control Committee has already petitioned the US Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to adopt higher standards for DOT-111 tank cars carrying packaging group type I and type II commodities (which include explosive liquids such as crude oil and ethanol).
In other words, while the rail industry has a way to go, one day rail could be as safe, or safer, than air. Let’s hope it gets there because the rails are again The Road to Riches. The various forms of the automobile may have temporarily overshadowed them, but their glory days have returned.