Taking the train is a safer travel alternative than driving by car or taking a ferry. But for pedestrians, trains may be fatal.
In 2017, railroad trespassing fatalities reached a 10-year high with 575 deaths attributed to trespassing and 888 total train-related accidents. In fact, a train hits one person or vehicle every three hours across the U.S. This has prompted the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to invest $7 million in a media safety campaign called “Stop.Trains Can’t.” to educate the public on the dangers of trains and railroad crossings.
High-speed rail is considered the future of train travel in the U.S., but in some states, these ultra-fast trains are linked to even higher accident and fatality rates. For a closer look at some of the most dangerous railroad crossings in America, we analyzed four years of data from the Federal Railroad Administration on highway-rail grade crossing accidents and incidents. Read on as we explore who’s most at risk for railroad accidents, the top circumstances for pedestrian fatalities, and which states experience the highest number of accidents and fatalities every year.
Understanding the Danger
A railroad crossing is defined as a point in the road at which pedestrian and roadway traffic intersects with a moving train. Because of their size and the speed at which they travel, trains are always afforded the right of way on the road. If a train were traveling at a standard 55 mph, it would take the length of 18 football fields to come to a complete halt even with the emergency brake activated.
In addition to current safety precautions (including railroad barricades and visuals as well as auditory alerts), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is making more efforts to reduce accidents. Using more advanced technology, the NHTSA has partnered with tech companies to include railroad alerts in map applications, is testing advanced warning systems and faster alerts when vehicles are detected on active tracks, and upgrading existing crossings.
Between 2014 and 2018, there were over 10,700 highway-railroad crossing accidents across the U.S. Of these 10,700 incidents, over 1 in 4 railroad accidents resulted in an injury, and more than 1 in 10 resulted in a fatality. A majority of train-related fatalities involved pedestrians (more than 65%), although school buses (one-third) and motorcycles (nearly 29%) were also at a higher risk of mortality when involved in train collisions.
Among truck trailer accidents between 2014 and 2018, less than 15 percent of passengers were injured, and 3% were killed. In total, 62% of accidents occurring at railroad crossings didn’t result in either injury or fatality.
Despite the tragedy of their circumstances, there’s no denying many railway accidents are completely avoidable. While the National Safety Council has introduced a national Rail Safety Week in September, experts emphasize that distracted driving and a lack of patience at railway crossings can be lethal.
More than 34% of railway incidents between 2014 and 2018 involved motorists or pedestrians who failed to stop at a crossing, and another 25% were attributed to pedestrians or motorists who stopped on the train crossing. Among pedestrians, attempting to move around the crossing gates was the foremost cause of fatal railroad crossing incidents and accounted for more than 14% of accidents between 2014 and 2018.
Suicide at Railroad Crossings
Between 2014 and 2018, more than 1,500 people across the U.S. either committed or attempted suicide in incidents connected to railroads. More than 13% of these occurred at railroad crossings.
Although nearly twice as common among men than women, suicide at railroad crossings was highest in Kansas, Illinois, Indiana, and California based on the number of incidents per 100,000 people in each state. These railroad incidents were more common in spring and summer, with more than 1 in 10 taking place in July and nearly as many in March and May.
Frequency of Accidents and Fatalities
According to Operation Lifesaver, a driver or passenger is about 20 times more likely to die in a collision with a train than in a collision with another vehicle. In 2018, there were over 2,200 highway-rail collisions, and roughly 1 in 10 of these incidents was estimated to have resulted in a fatality. In some states, the percentage of fatal accidents involving a moving train was much higher than the national average between 2014 and 2018.
In Texas, there were over 1,200 collisions on railroads between 2014 and 2018, but fewer than 8% resulted in a fatality. While there were fewer railroad accidents in California, nearly 29% of the state’s 801 incidents ended in death.
Between 2014 and 2018, there were 25 incidents in Fresno, California, although collisions are so common in California that lawmakers have drafted plans to build new crossings so that trains and cars don’t travel on the same roads. Along the 134 Freeway in California, experts attribute higher rates of accidents and fatalities to big trucks creating blind spots for drivers that may pose a hazardous threat with oncoming train traffic.
Similarly, 24% of the 67 collisions in Utah were fatal, followed by around 22% of collisions in Massachusetts and New Mexico.
Dangerous Regions for Railroad Accidents
From “train hopping” where pedestrians jump from one moving train to another to photographers looking for a closer glimpse at these moving mammoths, many accidents and fatalities involving railroads are avoidable. As a driver, passenger, or pedestrian, it’s crucial to be cognizant of rail safety and the dangers of ignoring safety signals of approaching trains.
Across the country, five states had the highest number of injuries between 2014 and 2018 relative to their number of railroad incidents. Led by Delaware where 40% of collisions resulted in an injury, we found similar rates of bodily harm in Mississippi (34%), Alabama (33%), Minnesota (over 32%), and Wisconsin (nearly 32%).
In contrast, some states had a much lower likelihood of train accidents resulting in injury. Wyoming (14%) and Washington (19%) both had the lowest rates of railroad injuries between 2014 and 2018 based on their total number of collisions with motorists or pedestrians. Concurrently, Montana (almost 21%), Oregon (nearly 21%), California (almost 21%), and Maryland (nearly 22%) had among the lowest number of injuries when compared to the total number of incidents between 2014 and 2018.
Regional Rates of Railroad Incidents
Coming into contact with a moving train is equally dangerous no matter where you are. Still, according to the Federal Railroad Administration data from 2014 to 2018, some crossings are significantly more likely to witness these accidents than others.
We’ve identified the crossings most often associated with injuries or fatalities in every state. In Florida, a Jacksonville railroad crossing reported 47 accidents with drivers, passengers, or pedestrians. Along the East Coast of Florida, between Miami and Jacksonville, there were 76 train fatalities in three years led by the high-speed Brightline rail. In Florida, many train-related deaths are linked to urban, low-income areas where pedestrians live near railroads and may feel less inclined to heed safety precautions.
In Illinois, we found 47 railroad incidents involving other drivers or pedestrians in Chicago between 2014 and 2018, and similar rates in Houston, Texas (46), Birmingham, Alabama (44), Atlanta, Georgia (38), and Baton Rouge, Louisiana (38). The safer states between 2014 and 2018 may have included Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, and Utah, where the highest number of railroad incidents was five in any major city.
Finding Protection After an Injury
In 2017, the 271 fatalities attributed to railway and train accidents marked a 10-year high for these incidents. Despite being largely preventable, the U.S. Department of Transportation is making new efforts to increase railway awareness and safety. Still, some states including California, Massachusetts, and New Mexico had a much higher percentage of fatalities relative to the number of collisions when compared to the national average, and Texas had the highest total number of incidents between 2014 and 2018.
If you or someone you love has been involved in an accident with a train, it’s important to know your rights. At Injury Claim Coach, we help victims get the legal advice and counseling they need to make the best decisions regarding an injury, accident, or medical error. If you’ve been involved in an accident and aren’t sure what to do next – Injury Claim Coach is here to provide the support you need. Visit us for a free estimate of how much your injury claim could be worth at InjuryClaimCoach.com.
Methodology and Limitations
The data presented in this project are from the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Accidents/Incident data, which do not include trains that do not interact with the heavy- or light-rail trains. The years queried and used in this project were 2014 to 2018. The data were accessed in March 2019. For the graphic titled, “Wrong Place, Wrong Time,” statistics from the Minnesota Operation Lifesaver were used to source the callout. For the graphic titled, “Railroad Crossing Suicides Over Time,” data from the FRA’s Suicide Casualties by State/Railroad was used in combination with the aforementioned source.
It is possible for one incident to have multiple people involved.
For per-capita figures, the 2017 American Census Bureau’s state population data were used. State per-capita calculations were as follows: (Number of incidents per state/state population)*100,000
The data were not statistically tested. Future research into the topic could explore more years of data and have the ability to get more granular.
Fair Use Statement
Train accidents can be lethal, and they’re almost always avoidable. Help us share these important safety rules and statistics with your readers by utilizing the research and graphics found in this article for any noncommercial use with the inclusion of a link back to this page in your story.