How Likely Are Train Crashes? The Hoboken Incident Is Far From The Norm

Instances of destruction, casualties, and loss of life associated with public transit like the Thursday train crash in New Jersey supply enough heartbreaking images and horrifying anecdotes to cause some travelers to feel uneasy about getting on board. With at least one dead and more than 100 others injured after a commuter train plowed through barriers and into the Hoboken station this week, it's natural that the situation would jar commuters into questioning the safety of trains. But an exploration of how likely deadly train crashes really are reveals that the tragedy in Hoboken is somewhat of a statistical anomaly that, in fact, firmly positions trains as one of the least risky modes of transportation.

At about 8:45 a.m. ET Thursday morning, a train headed for Manhattan barreled at a high speed into a platform where passengers were waiting to board, killing one woman in her thirties, NBC 4 New York reported. The wreckage and rush to aid the wounded was intense and the ensuing fear and confusion pervasive. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie soon definitively labeled the incident a "tragic accident," and a preliminary investigation indicates that "operator error" caused the crash.

Still, there's no official word on the chain of events that precipitated the crash, or what — if anything — could have been done to prevent it.

What is clear, though, is that the train did not slow as it entered the station, as passenger Bhagyesh Shah told CNN. "The next thing I know, I'm on the floor. We are plowing through something ... and when the train came to a stop, I could see the parts of the roof on the first car and some of the debris next to me," he said.

But amid the unsubstantiated murmurings that the collision may have been the result of terrorism, disappointed talk about how it could have been prevented emerged: positive train control, with which the train had not yet been equipped. Federal officials have ordered that all U.S. railroad companies install this technology designed to slow speeding trains, with a deadline of Dec. 31, 2018, NBC 4 New York reported.

Even without that particular catastrophe-avoiding technology, events like the deadly train crash in Hoboken are incredibly rare. In May 2015, shortly after a train derailment in Philadelphia left eight people dead, Vox reported that between 2000 and 2009, travelers were nevertheless 17 times more likely to die in a car accident that on a train.

Pancho Bernasconi/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In fact, a 2013 analysis by The Daily Beast showed that the odds of dying in a train accident in the United States are a slim 1 in 431,800 — less likely than drowning, getting bit by a shark, and dying by suicide. And the fact that the woman who died in Hoboken was not actually on the train itself squares with the stats: The Daily Beast reported that actual riders on the trains that do crash stand only a 1 in 19.3 million chance of dying.

To further illustrate the point, Reuters reported that in the 2,096 railroad accidents that occurred in 2014, 891 people died. Of those, though, just six were passengers.

"Train ridership is probably the safest way to travel in the world," founding chairman of the Intermodal Transportation Institute at University of Denver Gil Carmichael told The Daily Beast. "But trains can have accidents like any other vehicle. You can design the safety into the system itself ... Big high-speed train systems are much safer than interstate highways."

Major train crashes garner the media coverage and the national concern that they do precisely because of how infrequently they really do happen; Their impact — disrupting the commutes of thousands of people — are exactly what makes them news. Case in point: In 2011, according to The Daily Beast, car accidents caused 32,367 deaths, compared with the 698 that stemmed from train accidents. Of course, the only truly acceptable number of train crash deaths in zero, but those comparisons show that there's really, statistically very little reason to fear boarding a train to get to where you're going, despite what happened in Hoboken.