Q: Peter, I keep hearing that airplane travel is the safest, but I'd like to compare air travel with train travel. Could you please provide some Amtrak safety statistics? For example, accidents per miles traveled, routes with the most accidents, and maintenance statistics. I'm originally from San Francisco, now live in Northern New Jersey, and am contemplating a trip cross-country. Thanks for any help you can provide.
A: Statistically speaking, plane travel is safer than rail travel. But that doesn't mean train travel is unsafe. Relatively speaking, train travel is much safer than, say, driving in a car or riding in a bus.
For example, your lifetime odds of dying in a commercial plane crash are one in 52 million, while the odds of dying in a train accident are one in 115,489. But your odds of dying in a car accident are a staggering one in 261. So do the math and make your decision accordingly.
But then consider this: In 2008 Amtrak had 92 total train accidents, and no passenger fatalities. During the same year Amtrak’s trains traveled over 39 million miles. This works out to 2.31 accidents per million train miles. ("Accidents" are defined as events involving collisions with other trains, derailments, or certain types of mechanical failures.)
However, there were 1,458 train "incidents" over the same period, in which 119 people were killed. These incidents mostly involved collisions between trains and automobiles, between trains and pedestrians, or events where people fell off trains.
Unfortunately, there are no readily available statistics on Amtrak's line-by-line safety record, nor of each line's compliance with maintenance requirements.
A complete list of statistics for Amtrak (and dozens of other railway companies) is available on the Web site of the Federal Railroad Administration's Office of Safety Analysis. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics also has a wealth of data, as does the National Safety Council.