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Rail Travel Safety & Security

This page contains information about the safety and security of traveling by rail on Amtrak.

I am often asked in e-mail about the safety of traveling by Amtrak. People that ask this question usually have one of two different things in mind. Some people want to know how likely they are to get into an accident while riding a train compared to the same probabilities in an airplane or automobile. Others people want to know what the chances are of being a victim of a crime while on an Amtrak train.

Let me start with a quick summary. Everything I have been told by experienced rail travelers, every book I have read about rail travel, and my own personal experiences of rail travel, leads me to believe that you are quite safe on both counts!

Originally I was going to write about the crime aspects of safety and then follow that by the injury aspects of safety. In light of the recent wreckage of the Amtrak City of New Orleans Train on Tuesday, March 16, 1999, I have decided to write about the injury aspects first. There may be a number of people at present concerned about the safety of rail travel and may be making decisions about their rail travel plans. I'd like to try to put any fears along that line to rest before discussing other aspects of rail travel safety.

Safety From Injury

Let me start right off the bat and bring up the fact that fatalities and major injuries to passengers during rail travel are extremely rare. Prior to the 1999 incident, no passengers had died in an Amtrak train accident since 1993. That is 6 years without a passenger fatality!

This safety record is not the result of passenger trains never getting into accidents. Quite to the contrary, accidents on the rails are not that rare. In 1997, at least 245 Amtrak trains were involved in accidents. Very few of these accidents resulted in any injuries, and of those that did, almost all of the injuries were minor. Thus, the first conclusion that you should draw from this is that it is very unlikely that you will ever be injured during rail travel. Even in the rare cases where someone is injured, it is almost always a minor injury.

If you assume the 245 Amtrak accidents in 1997 are a typical number of incidents for a year, then you can assume that Amtrak trains have probably been involved in over 1,000 accidents over the last 6 years. You might wonder how so many accidents could have resulted in only one passenger fatality and very few serious injuries. I'll explain that below, but my own conclusion is that if I'm ever in a travel accident, I hope that accident is while I'm riding in a train and not in a car, bus, or airplane!

Let's analyze what happens in the typical accident for each type of vehicle:

  • Although accidents are most rare for airplanes, mile for mile, you are least likely to survive such an accident than any other mode of transportation. There are no "fender benders" in the sky! Generally, air crashes involve passengers riding on top of thousands of gallons of fuel and hitting another object, such as the ground or another airplane, at great speed. You don't want to be there. The only good statistic about air crashes is that there are seldom any injuries, serious or minor. But that is usually because everyone dies instead.

  • In auto or bus accidents, another object of relatively equal weight is involved. Seat belts, air bags and other safety design features give you a fighting chance, but the severity of injuries to passengers and damage to the vehicles is often going to be closely related to the speeds and relative weights of the vehicles involved. This is a real toss of the coin. Results of a crash can range from no damage at all to the colliding vehicles all the way to total fatality of everyone in all vehicles.

  • In a train accident, we have a circumstance unlike any other mode of travel. The weight of the train outclasses almost anything it could possibly run into. The one major thing you don't want to collide with is another train! With current safety procedures combined with modern signalling and dispatching techniques, collisions between trains is extremely rare.

    Collisions between trains and cars or trucks at grade crossings is, unfortunately, not so rare. Of the 245 accidents in 1997, 74 percent were attributable to inattention or impatience of the driver of the car or truck. However, unlike accidents between autos which tend to be of relatively similar weights, the difference in weight between a train and a car is massive! A collision between a train and a car has been likened to that between a car and an empty soda can! The relative differences in mass is about the same.

    What happens when a train hits a car? It is an experience that most locomotive engineers dread and never forget. However, the only thing that passengers usually experience is decelleration of the train that is more rapid than normal. This decelleration has nothing to do with having hit a vehicle, but rather is caused by the engineer putting the train into emergency and trying to stop the train as quickly as possible. An 8 car passenger train traveling at a standard Amtrak speed of 79 mph takes over 6,000 feet to stop. That is well over a mile!

    I was once in an Amtrak train that hit an automobile. I was typing on my computer at the time in my room in the sleeper. All I felt was the train quickly lose speed. I didn't know what the problem was until I heard more details from my railroad radio scanner. Generally, that is all you would experience if you were on a train that hit an automobile. If you were in the dining car, it is unlikely that even a drop would be spilled from a water glass on your table!

    Pedestrians and animals are also hit by trains at times. Unfortunately, too many of the human fatalities are either suicides of people hiking on railroad tracks. A passenger on a train is unlikely to know that the train has hit a person except again for the rapid deceleration of the engineer puting the train into an emergency stop, and then a 2 to 5 hour delay after that while the authorities do their investigation.

    As long as the locomotives do not leave the track, there is unlikely to be any problem for passengers on the train. It takes a lot to get the locomotives to leave the tracks. Hiting the average car, truck, or any other object is unlikely to do it. The cowel at the front of the train is designed to push most obstructions out of the way so that they won't end up under the wheels of the train. Very heavy trucks such as those carrying cement or steel are a problem. Although not a match for the train in weight, they are massive enough to cause the locomotives to jump the tracks. That is what can result in so much damage. But even then, passenger injuries may still be minimal if the cars continue to move forward and do not pile up badly.

    If you haven't noticed, unlike airplanes, cars or buses, there is no fuel in the passenger cars! Passenger cars are basically empty metal shells. Power, light and heat comes through electrical wires from the Head End Power (HEP) locomotive. The only place where flamable fuel is located in a train is in the fuel tanks of the locomotives. Passenger cars are usually not exposed to fire in a rail accident except in those rare circumstances where one comes near a locomotive in a pile up.

    The bottom line is that you are very unlikely to ever incur an injury as the result of a train unless you decide to place yourself in front of one. Even if you were traveling in a train involved in an accident, you would be unlikely to know it until you were informed by the crew that the train was in an accident. Rail travel that results in the injury or death of a passenger is extremely rare. As you can see from the great gaps in time between Amtrak accidents that result in injury to passengers, such events are aberations from the norm.

Over time I have given a lot of thought as to how I should cover this subject and whether I should write about it all. That may be one reason it took me so long to post this, despite my desire to do so. I know that just discussing the worst can make some people fearful. However, since standard news outlets give the most attention to Amtrak during these incidents, I didn't want people to be left with a false impression about the safety of train travel, nor did I want them to be left with an overblown impression of the frequency and severity of these incidents.

Based on the safety record of train travel, which includes the rarity of injuries to passengers even when the train is involved in an accident, you should not hesitate to go ahead and book your next Amtrak journey.

Safety From Crime

I am not an attorney, so what I am about to tell you is not legal advice. I do not want you to take any action based upon anything that I state below. I am only going to explain what I believe about personal safety on a train and why I believe it. I certainly would not want anyone to rely on my own personal opinions and then hold me liable if something to the contrary happens to them! You must always do what you believe is reasonable to maintain your own personal safety and the security of your property whether on the train or off!

Depending on which Amtrak train you take, there can be different classes of service offered. In terms of the security of your possessions, the types of accommodations provided by Amtrak can be divided into two categories: (a) coach seating and (b) sleeping car seating.

In coach seating, your carry on items are within easy view and access to anyone on the train. In the sleeping cars, carry on items in your room are not within view of others and cannot be accessed without someone entering your private room.

I've traveled over 130,000 miles by Amtrak. Most of that travel has been in sleeping cars. I've never had anything stolen from me and have never been on the train and heard anyone else claim that something has been stolen from them. I am not saying that this never happens or could never happen, but it is rare enough that I've never run into the problem even with the great amount of rail travel that I have done.

I've read almost every book available on Amtrak rail travel. They all seem to indicate that the level of onboard crime is extremely low. Each book has its own ideas about why crime is rare on a train.

Below are just some ideas that I have heard or have come up with on my own:

The train itself is a small closed world. Someone with intent to commit a crime usually likes to have a way to immediately get away after commiting their crime. A train is not a good place for this since there is nowhere to go until the train gets to the next stop. A potential criminal on the train is probably traveling to a specific destination themself, so even if getting off the train early to avoid getting caught is possible, it is very inconvenient in trying to get to their destination!

Although in coach seating your possessions are accessible to everyone, they are also in view of many people. A potential criminal can never be sure who is watching his actions and will report those actions to the Conductor or to the owner of a stolen item. If someone does report a theft to the Conductor, the thief now has the problem of not being able to get away. If they are able to get away by getting off the train before the stop where they originally intended to get off, that is inconvenient to the thief. Thus, someone with criminal intent might just want to wait until they are off the train for such activity than risk the problems associated with that activity on the train.

In the sleeping cars, you usually only have people that can afford to travel in that class. Petty thieves are probably less likely to spring for the costly upgrade to sleeping accommodations. You won't often find people from coach seating in the sleeping cars. Generally, only people with rooms in the sleeping cars are allowed into the sleeping cars at all. Each sleeping car has its own Car Attendant. If the Car Attendant does not recognize you as one of the passengers in his car, and you are not just making your way through the car to another Sleeping Car, then you are quite likely to be questioned by the Car Attendant. The Car Attendant will ask quite politely if he can help you. If you are a coach passenger, then the Car Attendant will politely point out that coach passengers are not allowed in the sleeping cars and will direct or escort you out of the car.

Most passengers close the door to their sleeping car rooms when they leave the room. Doors do not lock from the outside, however. You can lock yourself into the room, but you cannot lock the room from the outside. (Don't panic. In an emergency, the Car Attendant can get into your room if you or your child has locked themself in and can't figure out how to unlock the door from the inside!) Some passengers leave the door to their sleeping car room open when they are in the room, but most close the door even when they are in the room. Thus, a potential thief has a difficult time figuring out whether anyone is in the room when the door is closed.

Unless a thief has been keeping an eye on you and you have not noticed this odd behavior by someone in your sleeping car (something difficult to do in the limited hallway area of the sleeping cars), they will also have no idea if there is anything valuable in your room or you have taken your valuables with you. Thus, not only do they have to enter unauthorized into your room with the chance of not finding anything valuable, but they would have to spend time rummaging around your room looking for your valuables. Since your Car Attendant knows who belongs in each room and your Car Attendant spends most of his time in your sleeping car, it is very likely that he would quickly catch someone searching through rooms where they do not belong.

Because of the reasons mentioned above and others, I think that most people with criminal intent just don't exercise those intentions onboard a train. The train just does not present an environment that feels safe to a criminal. Although crime is not impossible, the probability of being seen or being caught where one doesn't belong is just too high. Then, when caught, it is very difficult to get away while the train is in motion!

People often ask me if it is safe to leave their belongings in their room or above their seat in coach when they go to the dining car or the observation car. You have to do what you feel is safe. Personally, I leave most of my valuable electronic gear in my room when I go to the Dining Car or when I explore the train. I feel safe in doing so and will probably continue to do so until something is ever stolen. Most people do leave their valuables in their room when they go to other parts of the train even though there is no way to lock your room from the outside.

In coach seating, I'd probably be a little more wary. However, I think asking one or two passengers if they wouldn't mind keeping an eye on your bags would probably insure that your possessions would not be touched.

Both Superliners and other cars often have a place near the doors to place luggage that is too large to place over your coach seat or into your sleeping room. I've never had a problem with storing luggage in this area. Generally, the Car Attendant stands by the door at stops which probably discourages anyone from attempting to steal your luggage. However, the more common risk is that someone will accidently take your bag instead of their own because of similar looking luggage. Just like the warning for airlines, it is very helpful to mark your luggage in a manner that makes it unlikely that someone else will mistake your bags for their own.

Overall, your person and your possessions are probably safer while on the train than in any other public place. You should make your rail travel plans and relax with the knowledge that travel by rail is both safe and secure!

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