Federal Data Show Rail Travel Almost 20 Times Safer than Driving
Highlights Need to Invest in Improved Amtrak
While last week’s tragic Amtrak train derailment has prompted new questions about rail safety, federal data show that intercity rail is among the safest ways to travel.
“Train accidents capture our national attention, but intercity rail remains nearly 20 times safer than driving. Subways are 30 times safer than driving,” said John Olivieri, 21st Century Transportation Campaign Director at the United States Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy organization. “A lot of lives would be saved if our policies enabled more people to ride rail instead of drive,” he added.
According to Federal Highway Administration data, 32,719 individuals died in automobile traffic crashes in 2013 – nearly an average of 90 per day.
Adjusted on a per-mile basis, intercity passenger rail has seen only 0.43 fatalities per billion passenger miles traveled, while auto travel has seen 7.28 fatalities per billion passenger miles traveled, according to federal data from 2000 to 2009 compiled by Northwestern University Professor Ian Savage, andpublished in the Journal of Research in Transportation Economics.
“Public transportation is overall a relatively safe (low crash risk) and secure (low crime risk) mode of transport,” said Todd Litman, Director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in a recent review of the safety literature on different travel modes.
Last week, the House Appropriations Committee voted to cut $251 million from Amtrak’s budget.
Cuts to Amtrak come at a time of record ridership and strong projected growth.Amtrak reports record ridership in recent years with 30.9 million riders in the latest fiscal year, compared to 20.9 million riders in 2000, a fifty percent increase.
Strong growth continues to be projected. In a 2012 report, Amtrak estimatesthat ridership along the Northeast Corridor is likely to quadruple by 2040, from 11.6 million riders in the Northeast Corridor a year to 43.5 million riders a year.
“It’s good that we are now having a national conversation about rail and rail safety. Traveling by rail is one of the safest options out there, which is one reason why Congress should invest more in passenger rail,” said Olivieri. “Congress needs to step up to the plate and make the investments necessary to enhance passenger safety along with more and faster passenger rail,” he added.
Amtrak’s five-year plan [2013-2017] puts needed investment at $151 billion in order to improve existing tracks, signals, bridges, and power lines, as well as to build a separate high-speed corridor between Washington and Boston. The new high performance system would be able to accommodate trains traveling at 220 m.p.h., reducing the commuting time between Philadelphia and New York to just 37 minutes.
Data sources and methodology for comparing rail, transit, and auto fatalities per mile are derived from the Federal Railroad Administration, Public Transit Administration, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as found in the appendix of Northwestern University Professor Ian Savage’spublished article and manuscript, “Comparing the Fatality Risks in United States Transportation Across Modes and Over Time.”