Home Emergency Management News Railroad Accidents Are a Reminder to Behave Safely around Trains

Railroad Accidents Are a Reminder to Behave Safely around Trains


By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Public University

As a youngster, did you ever walk along a railroad track? I did. My house was about 300 feet from the tracks and grade crossing, with those flashing red lights, clanging bells and wooden gates that would drop down to stop traffic until the train was safely past.

Our train station was just a block away. The fire department was next door to my home because my dad was Assistant Fire Chief B.L. Hedgepeth. Hanging out at the firehouse, train station and railroad tracks was an adventure for me.

Kids of my generation loved to walk along the train tracks in summer, sometimes camping along the way. We had great respect for the trains. When we knew that a train was coming, we promptly got off the tracks.

I have a friend with one arm and one leg. Both limbs were cleanly cut off by a freight train when he fell onto the tracks while he was playing. He had no chance to escape the wheels. He was just seven years old.

This friend is very proud of his life as a man today. He can stand on one leg with the best of us, hop up a staircase and he loves swimming.

But he doesn’t warn anyone about not playing on train tracks. His physical presence does that for him silently.

Rail Accidents Each Year Involve at Least 900 People and 1,000 Vehicles

On average, 900 children and adults and 1,000 vehicles are involved in railroad accidents each year. That equates to a person or vehicle being hit by a train every three hours.

We often see the results of a train wreck on TV. First responders and railroad workers scurry among derailed cars and twisted tracks. Train wrecks also involve many different organizations, including the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the Federal Railroad Administration, CSX and Amtrak.

There have been several train wrecks in the past couple of years. As recently as February 4, an Amtrak passenger train collided with a freight train in Columbia, South Carolina.

The accident was caused by a CSX maintenance crew manually switching the passenger train to a side track where the freight train was parked. This human error sounds like it occurred because the crew did not follow a set of steps or procedures.

The NTSB is investigating CSX’s organizational culture and the policies and procedures involved in moving that track switch. This accident was more likely caused by human error than by mechanical malfunction.

  • The NTSB has also investigated several train derailments or wrecks in 2017:
  • On March 10, 20 cars of a Union Pacific train derailed. Fourteen of the cars released about 322,000 gallons of ethanol near Graettinger, Iowa, causing a fire.
  • On June 27, two CSX employees were struck and killed by an Amtrak train approaching Union Station in Washington, D.C. The two employees had their backs to the train when they were struck.
  • On August 2, a CSX train with five locomotives and 178 railcars derailed in Bedford County, Pennsylvania.
  • On September 22, one boxcar of a Union Pacific Railroad train derailed in the train yard in Arlington, Texas. The car struck and killed a train worker.
  • On December 18, a southbound Amtrak passenger train derailed on a highway overpass near DuPont, Washington. The train was traveling at 78 miles per hour when it entered a curved section of track. The speed limit for that curve was 30 mph.
PTC Braking System Being Installed on Trains and Rails to Prevent Accidents

An automatic braking system called Positive Train Control (PTC) is slowly being installed in locomotives and on rails, but not quickly enough. Once PTC is activated, an electronic signal from the side of the track to the speeding train will automatically shut down the power and stop the train if it is exceeding speed limits.

All freight and passenger rail companies must have PTC installed by the end of the year. But it is unlikely that this government mandate will be met.

Vehicles Are No Match for Trains at Rail Crossings

Trains are the largest vehicles on the road. They often pass through some of the nearly 210,000 railroad crossings in the U.S.

Your car or truck may weigh about two to four tons. A train might weigh around 540 to 6,000 tons. A train hitting your car is like your car running over a soda can.

Railroad crossings are killing zones if drivers are not careful. Pay attention next time you’re near a train crossing and never risk trying to beat the oncoming train.


About the Author

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He is the former program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management, and Government Contracting. Dr. Hedgepeth was a tenured associate professor of Logistics and chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He has published two books, RFID Metrics and How Grandma Braided the Rain.