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Are Passenger Train Speeds Endangering Travelers?

By Lependorf & Silverstein on January 26, 2018

In mid-December 2017, an Amtrak train derailed, careening off a bridge outside Tacoma, Washington, killing three passengers and injuring one hundred more. According to NBC News, the train was traveling at 80 mph on a 30-mph stretch of track, and was not using positive train control, a technology feature that can prevent train derailments caused by excessive speed. The derailment occurred on a newly established Amtrak route that was supposed to provide better service in the area. Experts know that the train was going too fast, and questions surfaced as to why the train was speeding and who was to blame. For train riders throughout the United States, this incident has also raised larger questions about train speed and safety.

In the 89,620,418 passenger miles Washington state trains covered in 2016, zero passenger deaths were recorded, and only 38 passengers were hurt. Trains are supposed to be a safe method of travel, and usually, they are. But are increasing train speeds endangering passengers?

Does Faster Speed = Higher Chance of Derailment?

The short answer is yes. The faster a train is going, the more likely it is to derail. Like all forms of passenger travel, the vehicle’s capability, combined with the condition of the road or track on which it is traveling, determines safe travel speeds. In the recent Amtrak derailment, the train was traveling almost three times faster than the speed limit on that stretch of track, making speed the defining factor in the crash.

So, we know that increasing speed increases danger. Perhaps an even more important question is to ask if speed limits are set accurately, and how to enforce them once they are put in place?

How Train Speed Limits Are Set

According to Popular Mechanics, railroads have stringent speed limits nationwide. Railroad engineers set the limits by using the weight of the train and the sharpness of the curve to determine how fast the train can go around a corner without derailing. The Federal Railroad Administration also regulates the speed limit of trains based on their classification, with the general maximum passenger track speed set at 79 mph. It can be extremely difficult to determine the appropriate speed without in-depth knowledge of the track, so engineers and manufacturers really need to ”get on the ground” to get accurate readings.

Because these limits are set throughout the United States, speed usually endangers passengers only when the train malfunctions or the conductor does not adhere to the posted limit.

How Train Companies Can (and Should) Prevent Speed-Related Derailments

In the Amtrak train derailment that killed three, the train did not employ positive train control (PTC), a technology feature that can help prevent a number of train malfunctions. According to Thoroughbred Daily News, PTC can avert trains from being steered onto sections of track where maintenance is being performed, and can stop a train from traveling on the wrong track due to a track switch placed in the wrong position. It can also detect and slow down excessive speed in order to prevent train-to-train collisions and derailments. In the recent Amtrak case, it is likely that derailment could have been prevented by PTC. Extensions for mandatory PTC installation, however, are available until the end of 2020, according to the Association of American Railroads.

There are other measures train service companies can take to ensure safety. One such measure is visual track inspection. As simple as it sounds, physically inspecting the condition of the track greatly reduces the odds of an accident. Visual track inspection often involves a human inspector working with a special car or computer system to look for structural faults in the track. Other effective safety initiatives include use of a gage restraint measurement system, and annual ultrasonic tests (AAR).

Train Derailments and Liability

The good news is that train passenger deaths and injuries, especially due to derailment, are very rare. When they do occur, though, they can be devastating. In addition to speed, a number of things can go wrong on a train. The underlying factors that contribute to train accidents can be boiled down to two sources: human error and track/train malfunctions.

Depending on the cause of the crash, the train company, the regulating agency, and parts manufacturers could all be potentially liable. If you have suffered injury while riding on a New Jersey train, consider contacting a knowledgeable personal injury attorney to ensure that the responsible party covers your medical bills and other damages. For a free consultation with Lependorf & Silverstein, P.C., about your case, please call (609) 240-0040.

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The firm’s principals, Gabriel R. Lependorf and David E. Silverstein, have each been representing injured victims in the State of New Jersey for over twenty years.

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