Railroad-related accidents including derailments and train collisions with other trains, vehicles and pedestrians have been on the rise. A record number of train accidents involving nearly 2,000 injuries and 200 deaths were reported from January to March of 2008. Over half of these accidents were caused by trespassers on railroad property and rights-of-way, and over 60 percent of the injuries were incurred by railroad employees.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which is charged in part to "conduct research and development in support of improved railroad safety and national rail transportation policy", publishes safety information through its Office of Safety Analysis, which reported that the primary causes of train derailments and crashes that resulted in injuries and deaths in 2007 were:
- Human Factors (38.2%)
- Track Defects (34.94%)
- Miscellaneous (12.81%)
- Equipment Defects (12.27%)
- Signal Defects (1.76%)
The total number of reported railroad accidents that year is 13,067, which resulted in 8,801 non-fatal injuries and 851 deaths. Of the injuries, 1,031 occurred at highway railroad crossings and 398 were due to trespassing on railroad property and rights-of way. 338 of the deaths happened at highway railroad crossings, and 473 were due to trespassing on railroad property and rights-of way.
In an attempt to reverse the trend of increasing railroad accidents, the FRA completed the National Rail Safety Action Plan, which was introduced in May 2005 after several major train accidents. The plan focuses on reducing the two leading causes of train accidents, namely human factors and track flaws. But it also contains provisions to accelerate research to strengthen tank cars that transport hazardous materials, to contend with the effects of fatigue on train crews, and to enhance rail/highway crossing safety.
The National Railway Safety Action Plan Final Report 2005-2008 boasts that from 2005 to 2007, the train accident rate per million train miles decreased from 4.1 to 3.3. This suggests that one reason for the recent increase in railroad accidents is due to an increase in train miles traveled. But while grade crossing incidents trended down during this period, grade crossing and trespass fatalities did not decline correspondingly.
Recently, after the deadliest U.S. train accident since 1993, Congress is hurrying to pass legislation that would limit the hours engineers work, require technology to stop trains on a collision course, and that would enact additional provisions that would make up the first major rail industry safety reforms in 14 years.