Six people died when an SUV stopped on the train tracks in Valhalla, New York, and the train collided with it. Three people, all occupants of a pickup truck, died when their vehicle entered the path of an oncoming train in DeSoto Parish, Louisiana. More than 20 passengers suffered injuries when a train in Oxnard, California, struck a pickup truck that had gotten stuck on the tracks. Just this week, another 55 train passengers were injured in Halifax County, North Carolina, in a crash involving an 18-wheeler tractor-trailer that had, once again, gotten stuck on the tracks.

Trains are among the safer forms of transportation, but you wouldn’t know it from the rash of recent accidents across the country that have made the news over the past month or so. Can more funding for this issues solve it – and if not, what can?

Every three hours, a train wreck occurs – and while relatively few are fatal, some, like the February 3rd crash in Valhalla, NY, are very serious. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Rail Travel Safety

Statistically, train transportation is safer than travel by motor vehicle. Your risk of dying in a collision is 17 times greater when riding in a passenger car or light compared to onboard a train. On average, just 876 people die in train crashes each year, compared to more than 30,000 deaths on the roads that don’t involve locomotives.

Train-v.-car-fatalities

The fatality rate of rail travel hovers somewhere around 0.43 per billion miles – that’s right, billion. Get behind the wheel, instead, and the risk jumps to 7.3 per billion miles. (That’s still not the highest, though –motorcyclists face a rate of 212 fatalities per billion miles.)

Yet, as with the fortunately infrequent incidence of plane crashes, when train accidents do happen, they are likely to cause a great deal of damage. Rarely does a car accident leave 50 people injured, except in the unusual instance of massive multi-car pileups. The train and tracks involved in February’s New York accident will cost $3,700,000 to repair, dwarfing the price tag for property damage in any imaginable car crash. Even when trains are carrying freight instead of human passengers, a derailment could cause oil or volatile chemicals to spill and pollute the environment.

Solving the Railroad Crossing Problem

Despite the statistics that indicate the safety of train transportation, there’s growing concern that railroad crossings – rather than the trains or rails themselves – aren’t safe enough. After all, it’s telling that all of these high-profile crashes were train-vs.-car collisions, where the drivers of motor vehicles found their cars and trucks stuck on the train tracks as the locomotive approached.

In the DeSoto Parish collision, the railroad crossing had “no active warning devices (flashing lights, gates, or bells),” only “a railroad crossing sign and stop sign,” local news channel KTAL-TV reported. Current safety measures aren’t enough to prevent wrecks at railroad crossings – especially in locations where a simple sign, without signals and gates, is the only warning.

The crossing that became the site of the North Carolina accident had already seen four collisions.

In the New York crash, witnesses described the driver of the SUV getting trapped between the gates once they closed, the rear gate striking the vehicle. When she couldn’t back up to get safely out of the way, witnesses said that she drove forward, onto the tracks, where the train hit her vehicle with disastrous results.

Following the New York crash, Senators Charles Schumer of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut began pushing for more funding to improve the safety of railroad crossings, where the current signals are “outdated,” MSN News reported. New safety measures could include flashing lights for those crossings that are still designated only by stop signs and road markings, as well as smart gates that rise when they strike a vehicle – instead of staying down and trapping the car as current gates do – to allow the vehicle’s operator more of a chance to get out of the way safely.

Spending more money to upgrade these crossings isn’t the only way to make them safer. The Federal Railroad Administration has urged police to be more proactive in ticketing drivers who violate traffic safety laws and disregard warning signals, according to The Journal News. By forcing drivers to take railroad crossing signals more seriously to avoid fines, law enforcement can hopefully help reduce the number of drivers who put themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, endangering every passenger and worker aboard the train as well as every occupant of their own vehicle.

Of course, drivers don’t have to wait for changes in railroad crossing signals or law enforcement to begin taking train-related traffic laws more seriously. A good rule of thumb is to avoid stopping on the train tracks or within the crossing gates, even if you can’t see or hear a train coming.

Train accidents are tragic situations. Passengers, workers, and motorists die. Surviving victims suffer life-changing injuries. Conductors and other personnel are traumatized by the events. Railways sustain major damage, which can put routes out of commission for long spans of time. Would-be passengers are stranded, unable to commute to work or get home to be with their families. It’s in the best interests of everyone on the roads and on the rails to make railroad crossings safer, no matter what that takes.