Trains are responsible for a great deal of transportation in America. In fact, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, America has approximately 140,000 miles of railroad across the nation, making it the largest network of railroads of any country in the world. American railroads help carry passengers and materials to various destinations in the country, but not all trains make it to their final destinations.
Train derailments in the U.S. have decreased greatly over the past 20 years, but recently, the number of derailments has started to climb. Train derailment data from the Federal Railroad Administration show that the number of reported derailments decreased by approximately 47% from 2000 to 2020. Inversely, the number of reported derailments increased by 9% between 2021 and 2022.
Train derailments are rare occurrences, but when they happen, they can have devastating effects on the individuals involved. Most recently, the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, OH, caused twenty train cars of hazardous materials to derail, resulting in a widespread environmental disaster that harmed animals and humans alike.
In this article, we’ll discuss what causes a train to derail and the damages it can cause. If you or a loved one has been involved in a train accident due to derailment, you may be able to recover financial compensation from those responsible. Whether the accident was the result of decreased safety measures, broken rails, or human error, the Houston train accident lawyers at Reich & Binstock are here to help. Call us at (713) 622-7271 and schedule a free consultation with a train derailment attorney today.
What Is Train Derailment?
Train derailment occurs when the wheels of the train come off of the train tracks for one reason or another. Damaged railroad tracks cause many derailments, but other mechanical errors, human errors, and collisions can also cause them. Derailments are the most common type of train accident in the U.S., according to Federal Railroad Administration accident statistics.
While most derailments are minor, they can still negatively impact the daily operation of the American train system, increasing the risk of other incidents. A train derailment can also lead to a more severe accident, which can potentially harm or kill passengers on the train, or even damage the surrounding environment.
Why Are Train Derailments So Dangerous?
In February of 2023, a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. The materials on the train spilled into the surrounding area and made their way into nearby bodies of water, which may have caused residents to drink contaminated water. In an effort to limit the environmental impact of the accident, Norfolk Southern emergency crews performed a controlled burn of some of the remaining harmful material, which then released toxic chemicals into the air.
Train derailments have a large capacity for harm, and can pose a risk to human health in the hours, days, and even months following the accident through toxic exposure. Unfortunately, many railroad companies have rolled back their railroad safety regulations in favor of increasing profits. Longer trains can carry more cargo than shorter trains but are also much more dangerous and difficult to control.
If the deregulation of safety protocols continues, the number of train derailments could continue to increase, and the number of derailment-related fatalities could also increase. Fortunately, railroad accident lawsuits like the East Palestine derailment lawsuit aim to help hold negligent train companies financially responsible for the damages they’ve caused.
What Happens When a Train Derails?
When a train derails, it comes off the tracks either partially or completely. What happens after that is largely dependent on the cause of the accident. When major train derailments cause a train to come off the tracks completely, it can tip over or crash into structures near the tracks.
When a train car carrying harmful materials is derailed, it can dump those materials into local water supplies, like in the East Palestine derailment.
If a passenger train car derails, the people inside the car can be moved around, violently tossed across the car, or even thrown out of the train’s windows. This can cause passengers to experience catastrophic injuries or even wrongful death.
What Are the Main Causes of Train Derailments?
Various factors can cause train derailment, but almost all derailment accidents result from human negligence. The most common causes include track-related problems, human errors, and mechanical failures.
Track defects were the second leading cause of train derailments in America in 2022. Broken rails can cause the train to derail in a few ways. If the tracks on one side of the train are cracked or damaged, it can cause the running gear (the part of the train that comes into contact with the rails) on one side of the train to move unevenly, throwing the train off balance. This can cause the train to tip over onto one side or otherwise crash.
An unusual track interaction between the train and the railroad tracks can cause the train to experience improper movement. This usually occurs when hot weather causes the steel on the tracks to expand, which can cause them to buckle under stress. Additionally, empty train cars rattle at a frequency that matches the resonant frequency of the tracks. This unusual reaction can make the train move in a way that it wasn’t designed to move, which can lead to train derailment.
In 2022, human error was the leading cause of train derailment accidents. While train safety protocols are designed to prevent accidents like derailments, some train drivers may ignore these safety protocols. For example, excessive speed can affect train handling, making it more difficult for conductors to slow or stop to prevent train derailment. Conductors caught ignoring rail safety protocols, or failing to monitor the train and its surroundings, may be found negligent in a train accident lawsuit.
Occasionally, trains derail as a result of mechanical failure. Like all motor vehicles, trains have a lot of equipment working together to ensure the train moves quickly and safely. When this equipment fails, however, it can cause a serious railroad accident, like the derailment in East Palestine, where an overheated wheel bearing caused the train to derail.
Train accidents can also be caused by the environment. While trains are heavy, things like extreme winds can make trains derail, which can cause damage and even injury. Additionally, while train tracks are made to withstand the elements, they can degrade more quickly when exposed to rapid changes in temperature.
Weather can also affect the condition of the tracks, which can make them more slick and increase the risk of a railroad accident. Things like rain and fog can decrease a conductor’s ability to see, which can also contribute to derailments.
A collision can also cause train accidents, whether the collision is with another train, another type of vehicle, or another object. While rare, trains that strike vehicles stopped on road crossings can be derailed if all or part of the vehicle is pulled under the train and gets between the running gear and the track, causing a more serious accident. When vehicles don’t stop at railroad crossings, they can cause serious harm to themselves and others.
Additionally, if two trains are unable to or fail to communicate with one another properly, the trains may collide with one another. Things like trap points are designed to help move a train off of its track and onto another track in the case of an emergency, but conductors may not be able to engage the trap point in time to stop the train accident.
Trains can also strike foreign objects, like trees, rocks, or even animals. In 1984, a passenger train hit a cow that had wandered onto the tracks, which caused a part of the cow to get between the train and the tracks, derailing it. The derailment caused 13 fatalities and numerous injuries.
Many derailments are simply the result of a lack of regulations. In the case of the Norfolk Southern train derailment, an overheated wheel bearing caused the train to derail. There are heat sensors located on the tracks that are designed to notify the engineer if the train is overheating, but before the train could reach the next sensor, the bearing broke.
Federal railroad safety regulations are relatively lax. Heat sensors are not federally required, and railroad companies are allowed to choose where the sensors should be placed, as well as how far apart the sensors should be. If Norfolk Southern had decided to place heat sensors closer together, the accident might have been completely avoided.
Despite our ability to provide train companies with faster communication avenues and more advanced railroad technology, not all railroad companies are focused on protecting individuals and the environment. Things like increases in train lengths or decreases in inspections could cause train derailment numbers to increase over time, increasing the number of injuries and deaths caused by trains each year. Luckily, things like torts and class action lawsuits help provide consequences for negligent behavior by holding these companies financially accountable for their decision to put profit over people.
Who Is Liable for Train Derailment Damages?
Multiple parties can be responsible for a train accident. Depending on how the train derailment occurred, different parties can have varying levels of culpability. The National Transportation Safety Board sends federal investigators to determine the distinct causes of train derailments, which may help determine liability in a railroad accident lawsuit.
Potentially liable parties in a train accident can include the train driver, the railroad company, the train’s manufacturer, or the other transportation workers responsible for the accident.
What to Do After a Train Derailment Accident
Train accidents can cause serious bodily harm. If someone is in a train derailment accident, they should first seek medical attention. Then, they should contact the authorities to report the accident. They should also document the accident and their injuries by taking photos and videos. After all of that, they should contact an experienced train accident attorney with a long history of successful case results to help them file a claim for personal injury.
Contact a Houston Train Accident Attorney at Reich & Binstock Today
As the railroad industry shifts its focus from rail safety to increased profit margins, train derailments may become increasingly common as time goes on. If you or a loved one has been injured in a train derailment, call the Houston accident attorneys at Reich & Binstock. With over 30 years of experience trying cases in the Houston, TX area, you can rest easy knowing your case is in capable hands. Call our office at (713) 622-7271 or contact us online and schedule a free consultation with a member of our legal team.