How Do Train Accidents Happen?

If you look at the recent history of train accidents, there’s likely one fact that will strike you: Each of them was preventable. It goes without saying, then, that when they do happen, it’s largely because someone made an absolutely devastating mistake. Too often this mistake takes lives. Simple adherence to basic safety measures would have saved a number of lives.
Although not all accidents are the same, many are caused by similar factors, as detailed below. If you have been injured in a train accident, we urge you to contact us today for legal assistance.

Common Types of Train Accidents

The most common types of train accidents include the following:

Causes of Derailments

When train derailments happen it almost always caused by one of two factors. Either there is a problem somewhere with the tracks or the train was simply moving too fast for that part of the track.

  • Speeding. Recently, there was a major derailment in Taiwan. The accident killed 18 people. What was the cause? The train was moving too fast for that section of the track. Many folks don’t realize that, just like roads, railroad tracks have speed limits. Different sections of a railroad track have different speed limits. When the conductor does not follow the speed limit, the train runs a very high risk of running itself right off the tracks. The train company is responsible for the conduct of its employees under the law.
  • Track failure. In other cases, however, the derailment is caused by a problem with the tracks themselves. In July of 2012, a train derailed in Columbus, Ohio carrying several tons of denatured ethanol. Due to the explosive nature of the cargo, massive fires broke requiring 100 Columbus residents to evacuate the area. The investigation revealed several factors that caused the derailment. Those include simple wear and tear to the track in the area that it derailed as well as stress fractures from rolling contact and deformation of the track itself. The railroad company is responsible for ensuring the track is in good repair before allowing a train that weighs several thousand tons to carry heavy loads across it.
  • Train component failure. Wheel failure was blamed in a CSX train derailment that occurred in Washington D.C. Of the 175 cars in the train, 14 of them derailed spilling hazardous chemicals along the landscape. This included 700 gallons of sodium hydroxide and the highly flammable chemical ethanol. The FRA determined that the “journal” portion of the axle failed in the first car to derail causing 14 cars behind it to pull off the tracks as well. The train was only traveling at 27 mph at the time of the failure. The train company is responsible for conducting checks prior to allowing the train to travel across the tracks.
  • Unusual track conditions. In some cases, an otherwise functioning track can be affected by weather conditions such as snow, ice, and heat. In extreme heat, the steel rails expand. In most cases, there is a system of safety measures in place to ensure that the train remains on the track, but when they fail, they can result in a derailment.

Causes of Train Collisions

There are three major reasons why train collisions happen. Sometimes, it is not the train company or conductor’s fault at all. It is caused by vehicles and pedestrians attempting to cross the tracks when they should be. Other times, the vehicles or pedestrians are there intentionally in a grisly bid for suicide. Sometimes, it can be shown that had the train been traveling at a safe speed, it would have been able to stop in time to avoid the accident.
The majority of very deadly train wrecks that involve multiple victims are caused by “signal error”. When two trains occupy the same set of tracks and are traveling at one another at very high speeds, something has gone wrong. With modern technology, trains have GPS signals that relay their speed, location, and other data to a mainframe that can predict the occurrence of collisions before they happen. But if the train is not relaying its signal to the mainframe, then the program won’t know that a head-to-head collision is imminent. It’s similar to an air traffic control system for planes.
Such was the case of a head-to-head collision between two trains in France. The signaling system was undergoing maintenance while the two trains headed directly at one another on the same set of tracks. In this case, 40 passengers were injured with three of them sustaining extremely serious injuries.

What is the Number One Cause of Train Accidents?

The number one cause of train accidents remains human error. With all of our technology, we still have engineers and conductors that operate trains too fast, are distracted while the train is moving, or haven’t properly checked either train or the tracks before embarking.
In 2015, the now-famous Amtrak 188 train careened off the tracks injuring 200 passengers and killing 8 more. The engineer, Brandon Bostian, was charged with 80 counts of involuntary manslaughter. Bostian was operating the train at 106 mph around a curve at which the speed limit was 50 mph. Amtrak settled the suit for $265 million which was paid out to 188 victims of the crash. Bostian is still facing charges for the deaths of those 8 passengers. One criminal court threw out his case and it was reinstated by another on appeal. It appears that Bostian lost control of the train around the curve. According to some reports he was distracted by radio chatter. According to others, he was on his cell phone.

Filing a Lawsuit with the Help of a Train Accident Attorney

The office of Pottroff & Karlin, LLC helps train accident victims recover damages for their injuries when the rail’s negligence is to blame for an accident. Chances are good that if you’ve been injured in a train accident, there was something that the rail could have done to prevent it from occurring. Most rail accidents are avoidable. Give us a call or talk to us online to set up an appointment.

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Bob Pottroff has fought for the victims of the railroads’ callous disregard for safety more than any other attorney that I know. I should know because I am currently Chair-elect of the Railroad Section of ATLA.

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Mr. Pottroff has shaken the rail industry to its very roots. Settlements are now more common as a result of the way he has exposed the industry’s wrongdoing.

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Bob Pottroff’s work in railroad safety law is unmatched and he has been the source of great advice and phenomenal creativity.

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