This post is based on a reply to Chris Elliott’s article Is Train travel safe in America? which he published on his website yesterday.
Elliott, as well as writers in the Washington Post, BBC, and Fortune have all quoted Kevin A. Hassett’s article, Mind the gap, without critique. The article provides no sources or hard numbers, nor a link to the study that purports to document how unsafe American railroads are compared to European ones. The anecdote opening the article about Hassett’s bad experience having his train delayed (something which, of course, no airline or automobile passenger has ever experienced in this country) should be a clue that this is not a serious piece of research.
Consider the source: The American Enterprise Institute is a right wing think tank that has been pushing for years to have Amtrak dissolved. Even if their numbers are correct, some of the articles which quote “Mind the gap” use it to comment directly on Amtrak’s safety record. Hassett wrote (and is frequently quoted in the four articles I mentioned above): “Adjusted for passenger miles traveled, Amtrak’s passengers get injured 58 times as often as those on French railroads.” In reality, the injury numbers seem to refer to all passenger railroads in the US including numerous commuter railroads. He certainly doesn’t quote separate injury figures for Amtrak compared to American passenger railroads in general. Where do these stats come from? Hassett doesn’t cite his sources, but there is a table on Railroad Passenger Safety Data at the US Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transporation Statistics website. Curiously, while US railroad passenger fatalities have remained consistently low from 1991 to 2012 numbering from 0 to 24 deaths (aside from one outlier of 58 in 1993 resulting from Amtrak’s worst accident), injuries have increased threefold- from the 400s in the early 1990s to around 1500 by 2012. I have no explanation for why this might be.
It’s puzzling to me that Hassett’s allegations about American railroads compared to European ones are focused strictly on injuries and not fatalities. I mean, that’s what people are most scared of when getting on board a mode of transportation. We have no idea if the railroads report injuries the same way across national lines. For all we know, a passenger stubs a toe on Amtrak, it’s recorded as an injury, but may not be that way in Europe. If Hassett did have a methodology that appropriately compared the numbers across national boundaries, he did not explain it in the article.
An article in the Guardian gives a European railroad fatality rate of .16 deaths per billion passenger/km from 2008-2010. The Journalist’s Resource gives a figure of .15 passengers/crew fatalities per billion passenger miles on “long haul trains” in the US between 2000-2009 or .09 per billion passenger/km, 40% less than the European figures. It may not be exactly “apples to apples” since the year ranges are different and presumably the US figures exclude commuter railroads, but it calls into question the whole notion that American railroads are inherently less safe than European ones.
I welcome further inquiry of this topic. It may well be that Amtrak is less safe than European railroads. But it should be serious research that documents that, not quoting at face value the biased article from a man and organization with an ax to grind against Amtrak.