Tennessee has a particularly troubling history when it comes to train accidents. The Great Train Wreck of 1918, which happened near Nashville on July 9, 1918, is widely considered to be the worst rail accident disaster in US history to this day.
Over 100 people died and at least another 170 were injured when two passenger trains, operated by the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway (“NC&StL”), collided head-on at 50 to 60 miles per hour.
When the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) investigated the cause of the accident, they determined several factors were to blame such critical errors made by the crew and tower operators. The ICC also placed some of the blame for the high number of fatalities on the lack of a system for accurately determining train positions and the wooden construction of the cars.
There are a variety of reasons why train accidents occur – most of which take place at crossings when cars try to “beat” the train. When these accidents occur, they often involve the passengers, driver, and some passersby.
While every case is unique, the most common causes of train accidents include:
- Human error
- Reckless pedestrians and drivers
- Mechanical failure
- Speedy trains
- Defective tracks
- Unprotected railroad crossings
- Stalled cars on the track
Railroad accidents due to negligence can be blamed on different groups. Some may be the fault of the railway company itself, whereas others are because a conductor or railroad employee was negligent. Some accidents are even caused by the neglect of a government agency. Or perhaps an equipment manufacturer can be a reason why the accident happened.
One example of railway negligence is when a crossing arm is operated incorrectly. Another careless mistake is if the operator forgot or failed to turn on the signal light, which should have provided adequate warning.
A common factor that contributes to this problem is the decades old, outdated technology still frequently used for railways and trains today. Better technology is available to improve railway safety, but adopting these features is often put on hold because it involves a hefty investment.
For example, all Class I main lines that handle either hazardous materials or passenger trains (or both) were required by Congress to implement a system of train control technology called Positive Train Control (PTC) by the end of 2018. PTC aims to prevent many different types of train accidents such as collisions between trains, grade crossing accidents, and train derailments due to high speeds. However, an estimated two-thirds of U.S. commuter railroads failed to meet the deadline, and PTC is only in operation on 45% of tracks owned by freight railroads and 24% of tracks owned by passenger railways.
2. Human Error
If the conductor is inexperienced, train accidents can easily happen. Even those who have been working in the railroad industry for quite some time may make a mistake that harms other people, including passengers. Another growing problem with both experienced and new conductors is fatigue. They cannot operate the train safely if they’re exhausted, yet they do so anyway due to pressure they face from their supervisors and company.
Human error has always been one of the most common reasons for any accident. From poor judgment to vision issues to impaired reactions, these factors can (and do) contribute to train disasters.
3. Reckless Pedestrians & Drivers
Train accidents aren’t always the fault of the train operator or company. Sometimes, a reckless or distracted pedestrian can cause a collision by standing on or crossing the tracks at the wrong time. In other scenarios, the driver of a car, truck, motorcycle or other motor vehicle can cause an accident by leaving their vehicle parked on a train track or trying to beat the train across a crossing.
4. Mechanical Failure
The train operator, railway employees and the company itself can do everything within their ability to follow all the required safety procedures, but a train accident can still happen. Mechanical failure and defective parts are more rare than other common causes of train collisions, but they do occasionally happen.
Trains are large machines with complex systems and many moving parts. All of the different systems must work together perfectly to provide locomotive and electric power. If some piece of guidance equipment (such as a rail switch) or safety equipment (such as a rail signal) fails, it can cause a deadly accident.
5. Speedy Trains
Time and again, car accident data proves that driving recklessly fast can lead to serious injuries and deaths. Trains are no exception. Many train accidents in recent years showed that the faster the train, the worse the consequences become in the event of a crash and the higher likelihood of derailment.
6. Defective Tracks
Obstruction is a common issue with the tracks and can cause train derailment. Foreign objects left inadvertently at the site where the train will pass can be deadly. Conductors should be aware of their surroundings at all times to manage a potentially dangerous situation quickly and safely. However, in some cases, a conductor fails to see these obstacles at all or in time to stop a collision.
A derailment is when a train runs off its rail, either because of a collision with another object, a conductor error, mechanical track failure, broken rails, or defective wheels. A derailment doesn’t necessarily mean the train leaves the tracks – some may be minor. However, a serious derailment can be catastrophic if it occurs while the train is moving at a high rate of speed.
8. Unprotected railroad crossings
More than 80 percent of crossings lack adequate warning devices such as lights and gates, and more than half of all railroad accidents occur at unprotected crossings. Tennessee residents know well that there are many unprotected railroad crossings across the state. Accidents at unprotected railroad crossings are most often caused by:
- Poor visibility
- Driver distraction
- Driver inebriation/intoxication
- Driver trying to race the train
- Malfunctioning signals
- Obstacles that block a driver’s view
- Conductor failing to sound an alarm
9. Stalled cars on the track
Cars rarely get stuck on railroad grade crossings. More common is when drivers stall out when slowing down to cross bumpy grades due to a poorly tuned engine. If this happens to you, first you try to start it again immediately. If it won’t start, put your vehicle in neutral and ask for help to push your vehicle off the tracks. But if a train is rapidly approaching and there’s no time to save your car, remember that your life and safety are first priority. Get as far from your vehicle as possible.
Sadly, some people choose to take their own lives by standing on the tracks or jumping in front of a train. Federal statistics show that 266 people killed themselves by stepping in front of trains in 2017. Unfortunately, this tragic and desperate act also endangers other lives such as train crews, emergency responders, passengers and bystanders.
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