Are Trains Safe?

With many individuals on the go daily, the rails are a viable entity to move large masses of people efficiently and safely, however, like any mode of transport, travelers wonder if safety is the railroad’s chief concern.

So, are trains safe? Yes, trains are significantly safer than other forms of land transportation, such as cars or buses, as rates without accidents are significantly lower.

During the nineteenth and nearly half of the twentieth century, railroads were the premier form of transport. In the nineteenth century, railroads were a welcome alternative to horse and carriage, as their unmatched speed and efficiency stunned even those who opposed the genesis of the railroad. During the early twentieth century, rail travel continued to flourish, as air travel had not yet come to fruition as a viable entity. As the railroad blossomed into its current network, safety and security have always been at the forefront. Locomotives, rolling stock, infrastructure and other important measures have evolved as technology continued to advance.

According to the ASCE’s Infrastructure Report, there are 140,000 miles of trackage in the United States, five million tons of freight move along the network daily. Furthermore, the passenger rail network transports 85,000 passengers daily. With this much traffic on America’s rails, safety mechanisms must be implemented to ensure the safety of passengers and train crew. In recent years, the federal government has been implementing various methods to improve safety and security of the rail network.

Bill Johnson


Train travel is one of the easiest and safest modes of land transportation, as far fewer accidents are experienced with rail travel than road travel such as car and bus. Similar to any mode of transportation, safety is number one priority, as this is held as the hallmark of any railroad company. Various safety mechanisms are implemented to ensure the safety of passenger and crews aboard trains. These safety implementations have proved effective, as rail travel is considered nearly as safe as air travel.

Train travel is one of the oldest modes of transportation, as it came to fruition in the early 19th century. Therefore, it  has been nearly perfected with the latest technologies, many of which are mandated by the federal government. One of the most prominent safety systems, Positive Train Control (PTC), has developed into a federally mandated system in the United States.  This safety systems prevent incidents with other trains, and are also capable of correcting errors, such as passing a red signal missed by the engineer. With these safety mechanisms in place, rail travel is safer than ever before, and will continue to improve under the advance of modern technology.


Statistically, trains are significantly safer than various forms of road transport. Highways and other roadways are significantly more dangerous, for example, a driver or passenger in a car is 17 more times likely to have an accident on the highway than if they were passengers on a train.

According to University of Delaware professor and chairman of the university’s railroad engineering program, Allen Zarembski, 95% of rail related fatalities are due to collisions at grade crossings with vehicles, rather than with other trains or human error. According to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) data from 2016, out of the 777 rail related fatalities during the year, 479 were due to incidents with trespassers illegally occupying the railroad right-of-way, as well as 260 fatalities related to collisions with vehicles at grade crossings. Non-profit organization, “Operation Lifesaver” has been championing for change in grade crossing behavior, with the end goal to reduce the number of rail related fatalities due to trespassing and vehicle collisions.

Bill Johnson

Safety Measures

Throughout the history of rail travel, safety technologies have advanced to a point where the train could practically operate itself. Train crews endure extensive training and conditioning to ensure speed limits and other operating rules are followed extensively. However, in the event that human error occurs, various mechanisms are implemented to swiftly correct operator error, and secure the safety of all, both aboard the train and in the surrounding communities.

One of the longest surviving systems is called Automatic Train Control (ATC), which includes several smaller technologies within the system. One of these technologies is Automatic Train Protection (ATP), which assist the engineer with the distance it takes for a train to stop. The engineer receives these readings in the cab of the locomotive via wayside signals. Additionally, if the operator passes a red stop signal, the system will engage and bring the train to a stop.

Automatic Train Operation (ATO) allows the train to be nearly completely automated, as the only commands necessary by the engineer is the movement of the throttle. ATO allows for trains to slow and stop at signals and stations automatically without any command or movement from inside the cab. This is primarily utilized on rapid transit systems such as subways, with the exception of a number of heavy rail routes.

One of the most prominent system in use throughout North America is Positive Train Control (PTC), which is the latest in state-of-the-art technology, and has proven to be a reliable safety mechanism in the event of human error. PTC consists of thousands of wayside antennas, radios and other equipment to be implemented, as it is increasingly complex, and requires a hefty investment by the railroad company.

PTC is further advanced than ATC, as it has the capability to identify aspects such as speed limits, known track conditions, and movement authority limits in advance, and gives the engineer an advanced warning period to take action. However, if the engineer fails to comply, the system will take action automatically, whether slowing the train or bringing it to a safe stop. The technology is planned to prevent incidents due to excessive speed, collisions, incorrect switch points, and regulating train traffic through work zones.

Bill Johnson

This technology is mandated by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), and according to Union Pacific, one of the nation’s premier carriers, the system will cost them $2.9 billion to implement. Implementation includes 17,000 miles of their track PTC compliant, additionally, the equipment will be implemented in over 5,500 locomotives.

The sheer size of the investment made by both the railroad and the federal government into this advanced system serves as a testament to the safety and security that the railroad offers. Investment in rail infrastructure and safety is crucial to any viable transportation network. With these many safety measures in place, it is reassuring to travelers that the rails are a safe mode of transport.

Rail Safety in the UK and Continental Europe

Similar to PTC in North America, European countries have similar safety systems in place, however, they have been implemented far longer than PTC, although, they are strikingly similar to ATC, as they work in a similar fashion. Britain’s Automatic Warning System (AWS), was introduced in 1956, and operates via a ramp or magnet in the gauge of the track that alerts the driver if the train is traveling over the posted speed limit. If the driver does not comply with the warnings, the AWS system will take action and either slow or bring the train to a stop.

In continental Europe, a system called European Train Control Systems (ETCS), is being implemented in order to standardize the signaling and safety systems throughout continental Europe, as previously, different signaling systems have barred trains from crossing country’s borders. Furthermore, this system alerts the train operator about the conditions of the track miles ahead.


Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

Recent Posts