Train derailments on the decline

August 10, 2015

A report from The Brookings Institution.


America’s railroads have endured a number of high-profile accidents over the past few months, resulting in widespread service disruptions and economic costs across the country. From Montana to Tennessee to Pennsylvania, several freight and passenger trains have derailed, prompting action on safety from policymakers in Washington and beyond. Rapidly aging and increasingly overloaded with traffic—including large volumes of highly flammable energy products—many rail corridors face a long list of infrastructure upgrades to reliably and efficiently handle more passengers and goods over time.

Yet, despite the sudden spike in accidents, railroads are actually becoming much safer overall, building off a number of public and private efforts to boost infrastructure investment. This environment of overall safety increases coupled with more disruptive accidents should inform efforts to improve rail safety policy.

According to the latest Federal Railroad Administration data, freight trains continue to see a drop in overall accidents, particularly derailments. Last year, there were 1,202 freight derailments nationally, nearly half the total of 2004 (2,350). This decline, moreover, has come even as freight trains cover more miles, which are up almost 17 percent since they bottomed out during the recession in 2009. Still, the extent of damage from these derailments can vary widely, depending on the accident location and type of goods carried; this is especially true as the number of rail cars carrying hazardous materials, like Bakken oil, has risen over time.

Read the report, see the charts and graphs from Adie Tomer and Joseph Kane by clicking here.

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