WASHINGTON – News footage of derailed trains crumpled and scattered across the tracks are impressive to look at, but represent only a small fraction of all train derailments.
In fact, in Maryland the largest, single type of train accident between 2001 and 2004 were derailments when the train was moving less than 10 miles per hour that caused no injuries or deaths, according to a Capital News Service analysis of Federal Railroad Administration data.
The number of such low-speed derailments has been rising in Maryland, where the number jumped from 10 in 2001 to 26 in 2004, according to the data. This trend has not gone unnoticed by the FRA, which with its Railroad Safety Advisory Committee, is seeking ways to reduce the top causes of accidents in the nation.
Nationally, human error is the leading cause of all train accidents, accounting for 38.4 percent. A majority of those occur on low-speed tracks typically in the train yard, according to the FRA, which collects data on most freight and commuter trains in the country except those that operate on tracks that are not part of the general railroad system, such as Washington’s Metrorail.
Derailments occurring when trains are moving at less than 10 miles per hour in Maryland caused about $1.7 million in track and equipment damage between 2001 and 2004, and 36 percent of them were caused by human error, according to the data.
The No. 1 human error, both nationally and in Maryland, was an improperly lined switch, which means a train was routed the wrong way because the track was misaligned at a split.
While none of the low-speed derailments in Maryland resulted in injury or death, an improperly lined switch in South Carolina in January on a high-speed track is blamed for an accident that killed nine people, according to the FRA.
Although most of the accidents and derailments occur on low-speed tracks, the FRA warned that they still pose a threat of injury and death, and the mistakes that cause many of them are errors that can be fatal on faster tracks.
The FRA requires railroad companies to have formal procedures, and employees are disciplined when they violate the rules. However, few of the most common human mistakes are prohibited by FRA regulations, and are only governed by each railroads’ procedures.
Low-speed tracks, such as those in yards, have fewer federal standards than high-speed tracks, said Steve Kulm, spokesman for the FRA, and the FRA is suggesting federal prohibitions against the most common violations to reduce the number of accidents.
The Railroad Safety Advisory Committee is expected to present recommendations for curbing the number of accidents this spring, Kulm said, and the FRA plans to have proposed rules by September 2006.
Federalized standards don’t always take into account local conditions, said Tom White, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, which is a member of the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee.
The issue is being discussed by the committee, White said, and whether or not federalization will be a positive step toward safety remains to be seen.
The FRA only requires accidents to be reported if there is more than $6,700 damage to track and equipment, an amount that hasn’t been changed in several years, said Chris Barkan, director of the railroad engineering program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
While the damage limit has not risen, the cost of steel has risen 30 percent in the last two to three years, Barkan said, and because of rising repair costs, more accidents may exceed the $6,700-limit.
It’s possible that the number of accidents has not gone up; there are just more that have to be reported, he said, and a study needs to be done to see how much repair costs have increased and what effect that has.
The Railroad Safety Advisory Committee is composed of railroad companies, unions and transportation boards, and White said the committee has led to a good consensus on safety issues in the past.
Railroads in Maryland are monitored by FRA inspectors and state inspectors who enforce federal regulation along with some state standards, said Joe Sokolsky, the state’s chief inspector.
One method the state inspectors use to combat low-speed accidents is to look at how many derailments were in a particular yard and look for any patterns in the causes, Sokolsky said. The inspectors also check that crew members are doing their jobs properly and conduct periodic focused inspections.
The larger, more damaging accidents on the main lines have been reduced over the years, and their numbers remain low, Barkan said, and the railroad is the safest of the transportation industries.