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The safety of train travel may extend to rail car design

Traveling by train is usually a safe experience, one that many people enjoy. However, accidents happen, and a train wreck can be a disaster for riders.

Recently, the National Transportation Safety Board conducted a hearing regarding Amtrak safety and the December 2017 train crash in DuPont, Washington. The focus was on the rail cars and crash-protection standards.

What are the facts?

According to statistics gathered by the Federal Railroad Administration, Amtrak had 18,460 accidents or "incidents" between 2005 and 2014. Broken rails or welds account for most of the derailments that occurred, but track geometry--which includes elements like elevation, gauge and train alignment--was also found to be a major factor. However, rail car structure is at issue in the Washington accident.

Were the rail cars safe?

In 2009, the FRA approved Talgo rail cars for use on certain Amtrak runs. Their decision was based on the information that the cars could safely sustain a collision at up to 50 miles per hour. The FRA did express some concern about the safety of the cars at higher speeds. In the Washington crash, the train was traveling at 78 miles per hour when it approached a curve where maximum speed was limited to 30 mph. The train jumped the tracks, killing three people and injuring another 74. The people who died were in a car that was severely damaged: the roof collapsed, the floor buckled and the seats were crushed.

Who is liable?

An attorney experienced with railroad accident cases will tell you that by federal law, there is a cap of $295 million for the total number of lawsuits brought against the company for a single rail-passenger accident. In such cases, the suits are usually combined and heard by a single judge. Aside from Amtrak, those who might be held liable for the Washington train crash include Sound Transit, the company that owns the bypass tracks; Washington State Department of Transportation, owner of the Cascade trains; and Talgo, the company that built the rail cars that have come under scrutiny by the NTSB.

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