train derailed

The scary truth about Amtrak crashes around Philly: More people are getting hurt

After years of only a handful of injuries per year on Amtrak trains in Philly, the total have exceeded double digits every year since 2007.

One year after the worst Amtrak accident in recent history, another Amtrak train crashed Sunday in the Philadelphia area. This time it happened a bit outside of the city, in Chester. Two Amtrak employees working near a backhoe struck by the train died, and dozens of passengers were injured. Then a few hours later, an Amtrak train hit a man in Bensalem who lost his leg.

Though train accidents are extremely rare — you have a much smaller chance of dying on a train than in a car or even on a ferry boat — Amtrak accidents in Philadelphia and Bucks County and Delaware County went up the last two years after a few years of decreasing totals. And like the rest of the United States, injuries to passengers aboard Amtrak trains have been increasing substantially in Philadelphia.

75 Philadelphia derailments since 1990

Amtrak trains on the Northeast Corridor travel through the Pennsylvania counties of Philadelphia, Bucks and Delaware. It is one of the busiest rail lines in the United States, with just over 4 million people boarding or leaving from Amtrak trains in Philadelphia every year.

As would be expected in a heavily-traveled area, crashes happen from time to time. The last two years have been particularly bad. In 2014 and 2015, the Federal Railroad Administration reported eight and 11 Amtrak crashes. This comes after six or fewer crashes in seven of the previous eight years (all numbers in this article are from the Federal Railroad Administration)

The crash patterns in the Philadelphia area mirror the United States to an extent. The low totals of the early 90s rose in the late 90s and early aughts, fell for a few years and then went up in 2014 and 2015.

The difference is the totals in the United States the last two years are way lower than they were around around 2000. In the Philly area, the totals from the last two years are about the same as they were around 2000.

Do crashes occur more often in this area than other parts of the country? Unfortunately, the FRA doesn’t break down its county-level data into accidents per 1 million train miles traveled, as it does for the United States’ total. It makes sense that Philadelphia’s total would represent a large amount of total accidents, though. More trains pass between New York City, Philadelphia and Washington DC than anywhere else in the country. The number of passengers who travel in and out of those cities each year (about 19 million) is greater than the number of passengers serviced by the next 20 busiest Amtrak stations combined.

The majority of Philly-area accidents since 1990 (149 of 196) have happened in the city. Of the Philadelphia accidents, 75 of them have been derailments.  Fifty-two of the total accidents in the city have been caused by track problems. Twenty-nine have been caused by equipment problems and 27 by human error. The rest are for miscellaneous reasons or unknown — like last year’s Amtrak 188 crash.

So far this year, there have already been at least four Amtrak accidents in the Philly area: the two from Sunday and two more in Bucks County. Sunday’s Bucks County accident, plus the other two so far this year, have all taken place near the Cornwells Heights Station in Bensalem.

Injuries and Deaths

The more worrisome aspect the last few years pertaining to train safety is less crashes than injuries. They’ve been on the rise nationally and in Philadelphia for the last few years.

From 1997 (the earliest year county data was available from the FRA) to 2007, total non-fatal injuries involving an Amtrak train only once topped 70. These numbers involve passengers, employees and people not aboard trains who get injured by one. From 2008 to 2015, the count has been 77 or higher each year.

Take away employees or people outside of the trains, and the number is still growing. From 1997 to 2006, fewer than 10 passengers were injured aboard an Amtrak train in Philadelphia every year. From 2007 to 2015, at least 11 passengers have been injured every year, with that total rising to over 100 because of Amtrak 188 in 2015 (which is not included on the graph because the rest of the data wouldn’t size up visually).

These injuries include crashes and everything else. So if somebody trips in the aisle and breaks a leg that would be included in the injury data.

Passenger injuries are on the rise nationally, as well as in Washington DC, which has about the same number of train passengers per year. Like Philadelphia, it had single-digit injuries through 2006. From 2008 on, the number of annual passenger injuries have been hovering from around 15 to 25.

In Philadelphia and Washington DC, the increase in passenger injuries can’t be explained fully by increased ridership. In 2004, the Northeast Corridor saw about 9 million passenger trips. The total rose pretty steadily every year to about 11.5 million in 2014. That’s an increase of 28 percent. From 2007 on, Philly’s passenger injuries have been at least 100 percent above the 2004 total of five and in many years much higher.

Deaths are still a rare occurrence. The eight deaths from last year’s Amtrak 188 crash are the only recorded passenger deaths since 1997 in Philadelphia. A handful of others have died from being struck by trains in the same time period.

So, is something wrong with Amtrak here and everywhere else? As mentioned above, train travel is far safer than traveling by car. But the United States is way behind Europe when it comes to train safety. France, for instance, is 58 times safer than the U.S. in miles traveled per passenger injury.

Gauging by thousands of miles traveled per passenger injury, the U.S. trails even Europe’s poorest nations. The only country that comes close is Latvia. 

Politics can certainly be blamed for part of the problem. Democrats claim Amtrak needs far more than the $1 billion it’s appropriated each year so it can better improve its outdated infrastructure. Republicans say the government has no reason to be in the train business altogether and wants Amtrak to be sold to private companies.

And rather than unify politicians to act, partisan divides in the national and state legislature make both sides dig un further — so accidents like Sunday’s and especially last year’s tend to just pull opposing sides farther apart.

×