A reminder from the data.
It is starting to fell like the summer of the grisly train crash, with news – and graphic pictures – emerging today of a second European rail disaster in as many weeks. This latest one occurred Monday as two regional Swiss trains collided with each other head-on, injuring an estimated 44 people. Below, you can see some amateur YouTube footage of the aftermath:
Of course, high-profile disasters always distort our perception of risk. And successive high-profile disasters can really start to build the impression that rail travel at any speed simply isn't safe. And so it's worth rehashing the reality that only numbers can tell: When it comes to transportation safety, you're worst off from behind the wheel of an automobile. Riding a train, by contrast, is one of the safest ways you can get around.
First, a quick look at the numbers in the U.S., via the National Transportation Safety Board. In 2011, 34,434 people died in America in transportation related accidents. The vast majority of them died in cars, with a much smaller number of rail fatalities.
National Transportation Safety Board
In most years, more than half of rail deaths are suicide or trespasser-related. A similar pattern exists in Europe. The Federal Transit Administration has previously calculated that if you take away suicides and trespasser-related deaths, rail transit is responsible for less than 0.1 percent of all transportation-related fatalities in the U.S. Even counting those deaths, there were still more people in America who died in boating accidents in 2011 than train accidents.
Another way to put this is to look at the miles traveled by each transportation mode. This 2008 data from the National Safety Council shows that there were 0.55 deaths that year per 100 million miles traveled in passenger automobiles. For rail, that figure was just 0.13.
Granted, those figures all come from the U.S., and the latest accidents occurred in Europe (at least one of them at speeds higher than most American trains can travel). The good news, again, is that Europe's safety record looks similar, as measured across transportation modes in deaths per 1 billion passenger kilometers (based on data from 2008-2010).
To recap: Train travel is a very safe way to go. In fact, suicide deaths in front of trains are unfortunately a lot more common than accidents that kill the people riding them.
Top image from an accident July 29 in western Switzerland: Denis Balibouse/Reuters