Train Travel is great—But is it Safe?

February 5th, 2015

News programs across the country are leading with the terrible crash of the Metro-North commuter train just outside New York City.  The story is horrific and frightening for people who commute by both train and car.

For automobile travelers, likely it conjures up our worst fears whenever approaching a train track along a busy road, particularly at rush hour.  Everyone knows not to intentionally go around the gates after they’ve come down, and it’s certainly a fool’s errand to try to actually beat a speeding train.  Clearly, you’ll lose.  But when you’re just creeping along in heavy traffic, how often have you found yourself perilously close to the tracks or worse yet, on the tracks with nowhere else to go?

In this case, the driver of the SUV which was ultimately struck by the train and dragged 1,000 feet down the tracks initially found herself close to the tracks with the gate coming down on the back of her vehicle.  The driver of the car behind her moved back and motioned for her to move back away from the tracks as well.  For reasons we will never know, perhaps in her panic to get out of the situation, she put the car in Drive instead of Reverse, and she actually went forward and directly into the path of the speeding train.

That’s the horrible fate that can befall a driver in this situation.  It’s almost worse (hard to even imagine but true) for the passengers of the train.  Unlike the driver of the vehicle, they have absolutely no control over what might happen to them in this situation.  They are completely at the mercy of the train conductor, the vehicle driver, and fate itself.

In this case, the force of the collision with the SUV caused the train’s third rail to be lifted from the ground and impale the first two cars of the train all which burst into flames.  Five people on the train were killed including a curator of European Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Eight other people remain hospitalized.

Just one month ago, another accident raised questions about the safety of this type of commuter travel when a train on the Yellow Line of the Washington Metro filled with smoke.  It took rescuers forty-five minutes to reach the passengers who were in the dark feeling like they were choking to death.  One person died.

Yesterday, the news also featured a guy who walks twenty-one miles to and from work every day.  At first, I felt a bit sorry for him.  Now I think he may actually be on to something.

The Metro-North train accident occurred along the Harlem Line which I have traveled.  It’s a very busy commuter line with well-dressed polite passengers making their way to and from work to the suburbs of New York.  It’s awful to think of people much like the passengers I personally see quite often just going about their business one minute and then being consumed by flames the next.  The accident was so horrific that many of the dead can only be identified with dental records.

We will all mourn the fate of these passengers over the next week, but we should also ask a serious question after the events of the past month or so.

Is train travel safe enough?

This is an important question since for financial and convenience issues many Americans have no other way to get to and from their jobs than by train.  Also, government officials often encourage such mass transportation as a means of lessening our carbon footprints.

My husband and I just crossed the country by train.  At times, it seemed that the train was not in the best repair although I’m not complaining. Overall, we had a wonderful trip. Still, we did notice the little things that could spell bigger problems.  For instance, a door didn’t work between our two rooms.  When we mentioned it to the staff, they told us that unfortunately not much money goes into train infrastructure and repair these days.  If that affects something as simple as a working interior door, imagine what it might mean for something much more significant.

While I won’t stop riding the train, I’ll travel differently in the future.  I’ll always check out escape and emergency route procedures very carefully.  For drivers, I’d suggest thinking carefully about strategies for driving around train tracks, particularly at rush hour.

Unfortunately, train travel seems to be a forgotten mode of travel just as more and more Americans are forced to use it as a principal mode of travel.  That’s horrible and needs to change.  Either run the trains safely and on time or don’t run them at all. As citizens, we should demand that our elected officials give train travel much more attention than they’re giving it to date.

Train travel is important to the daily lives of many Americans, and it certainly needs to be treated as such.

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