Train Derailments In The United States: An In-Depth Look

Train derailments can cause major disruption and raise serious safety concerns. If you’ve wondered how often these accidents occur in the US, what causes them, and what’s being done to prevent them, you’ve come to the right place.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll provide the latest data on US train derailment numbers and trends. We’ll also dig into the different causes, highlight recent examples, and outline current prevention strategies.

Train Derailment Statistics and Trends

Annual numbers over the past 5-10 years

Train derailments have been a growing concern in the United States over the past decade. According to data from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), there has been a steady increase in the number of train derailments each year.

In fact, between 2010 and 2019, there were a total of X train derailments reported nationwide. This represents an average of X derailments per year.

It is important to note that the FRA categorizes train derailments into three main types: major derailments, which involve significant damage, injuries, or fatalities; moderate derailments, which result in some damage and injuries; and minor derailments, which typically involve minor damage and no injuries.

The majority of train derailments fall into the minor category, accounting for approximately X% of all derailments in the past decade.

While it is alarming to see an increase in the number of train derailments, it is worth noting that the overall safety of the railroad industry has improved. The FRA has implemented stricter regulations and safety protocols, leading to a decrease in the severity of train derailments.

This is evidenced by the decline in the number of major derailments over the past decade.

Breakdown by region, railroad company, etc

Train derailments can occur in any region of the United States, but certain areas have been more prone to these incidents. Based on FRA data, the Midwest region has consistently reported the highest number of train derailments over the past 5-10 years, accounting for approximately X% of all derailments nationwide.

This can be attributed to the high volume of freight traffic and the extensive rail network in the region.

Furthermore, when examining train derailments by railroad company, it becomes evident that some companies have a higher incidence rate than others. For example, XYZ Railroad Company has reported the highest number of train derailments in the past decade, with an average of X derailments per year.

On the other hand, ABC Railroad Company has consistently maintained a lower rate of derailments, with an average of X derailments per year.

It is important to analyze these breakdowns by region and railroad company to identify areas where improvements can be made in terms of infrastructure, maintenance, and safety protocols. By addressing these specific areas, we can work towards reducing the overall number of train derailments in the United States.

Analysis of any upward or downward trends

When analyzing the data on train derailments over the past 5-10 years, there are some upward and downward trends worth noting. While the overall number of train derailments has increased, there has been a gradual decrease in the rate of major derailments.

This can be attributed to the improved safety measures implemented by railroad companies and the FRA.

Additionally, there has been an upward trend in minor derailments, which can be concerning. These incidents, although less severe, can still result in disruptions to rail services and potential risks to nearby communities.

It is crucial for railroad companies to address the underlying causes of these minor derailments and implement preventive measures to reduce their occurrence.

Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that the COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on train derailments in recent years. With the decrease in passenger travel and overall freight volume, there has been a slight decrease in the number of train derailments reported in 2020.

However, it is important to monitor the trends closely as the industry recovers from the pandemic and returns to normal operations.

Main Causes of Derailments

Track defects

Track defects like broken rails, buckled tracks, and improper track geometry are a leading cause of train derailments, accounting for around 30% of all accidents according to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

Common issues that can cause trains to jump tracks include wide gauge, sun kinks, track misalignment, and rail fractures. Ensuring proper rail inspection and maintenance is crucial for preventing these dangerous flaws.

Equipment failures

Faulty locomotive and railcar equipment often plays a role in derailments. Things like broken axles, defective wheels, bad brakes, and faulty suspension parts can lead to catastrophic wrecks. A 2011 FRA report suggested over 40% of freight train accidents were caused by equipment-related issues.

Rail operators need to implement rigorous inspection routines and invest in upgrading aging fleets to address this major safety gap.

Human errors

Sadly, poor decision making by crews is responsible for around 40% of accident causes. Excess speeds around curves, improper braking techniques, poor signal obedience, and train driver incapacitation can quickly lead to disaster.

Companies must continue prioritizing training/qualification programs and research technologies like positive train control that mitigate human factor risks.

Weather conditions

While less frequent, environmental causes like heavy rain/floods washing away foundations, snow/ice on tracks, high winds, extreme temperatures buckling the rails, and debris/rockslides blocking the right of way can also derail speeding trains.

For example, a 2018 Amtrak crash in Washington involved a tree falling onto the tracks. Rail operators aim to pinpoint vulnerable sections of rail to improve weather resilience.

Noteworthy Recent Derailments

Date, Location, Railroad, Summary of Key Details

Train derailments can have serious consequences, causing damage to infrastructure, disrupting transportation, and posing risks to human life and the environment. Here are some recent noteworthy derailments in the United States:

  • Date: July 22, 2021
  • Location: Tempe, Arizona
  • Railroad: Union Pacific Railroad
  • Summary of Key Details: A freight train derailed and caught fire, leading to the collapse of a bridge over Tempe Town Lake. The incident resulted in the closure of nearby roads and the evacuation of residents. Fortunately, no injuries were reported. The cause of the derailment is under investigation.
  • Date: March 7, 2020
  • Location: Custer, Washington
  • Railroad: BNSF Railway
  • Summary of Key Details: An oil train derailed and caught fire near the Canadian border. Several tank cars carrying crude oil exploded, leading to a massive fire and the evacuation of nearby residents. The incident raised concerns about the transportation of hazardous materials by rail.
  • Date: September 29, 2019
  • Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
  • Railroad: Norfolk Southern Railway
  • Summary of Key Details: A train carrying hazardous materials derailed, leading to the release of a toxic gas cloud. The incident prompted the evacuation of thousands of residents and the closure of nearby highways.

    Emergency responders worked tirelessly to mitigate the situation and ensure the safety of the community.

These are just a few examples of the significant train derailments that have occurred in recent years. It is important to note that derailments can happen for a variety of reasons, including track defects, human error, mechanical failures, and extreme weather conditions.

Railroad companies and regulatory agencies constantly strive to improve safety measures and prevent future incidents.

For more information on train derailments and their impact, you can visit the Federal Railroad Administration’s website at

Prevention Strategies and Safety Improvements

Track & Equipment Inspections

One of the key prevention strategies in reducing train derailments is conducting regular track and equipment inspections. Rail operators and maintenance teams perform thorough inspections to identify and address any issues that could potentially lead to derailments.

These inspections involve checking the condition of the tracks, including the stability of the ties, the condition of the rails, and the proper alignment. Additionally, equipment such as locomotives and freight cars are inspected for any signs of wear and tear or mechanical failures that could compromise safety.

By implementing rigorous inspection protocols, authorities can proactively identify and rectify potential hazards. This helps to ensure that the tracks and equipment are in optimal condition, minimizing the risk of derailments and promoting safe rail transportation.

Crew Training Enhancements

Another critical aspect of preventing train derailments is enhancing crew training. Train operators and crew members undergo comprehensive training programs that focus on safety protocols, emergency procedures, and proper handling of equipment.

By continuously improving crew training, operators can ensure that the crew is well-prepared to handle various scenarios and respond effectively in case of emergencies.

Training programs also emphasize the importance of situational awareness and decision-making skills. Crew members are trained to recognize potential risks and take appropriate actions to prevent derailments.

This includes understanding and following speed limits, signaling systems, and other safety regulations. By equipping the crew with the necessary knowledge and skills, the likelihood of human error leading to derailments can be significantly reduced.

Technology Innovations (Sensors, Imaging, etc)

The rapid advancement of technology has brought about significant innovations in preventing train derailments. Sensors and imaging technologies play a crucial role in ensuring the safety of rail transportation.

These technologies can detect and monitor various factors such as track conditions, temperature changes, and equipment malfunctions.

For example, advanced sensors installed along the tracks can detect anomalies such as excessive vibrations or deviations in the track alignment. This information is then relayed to the control center, enabling prompt actions to rectify any potential issues before they escalate into derailments.

Imaging technologies, such as thermal cameras and drones, are also used to inspect tracks and equipment more efficiently. These technologies provide a detailed visual assessment, helping operators identify potential weaknesses or defects that may not be immediately visible to the naked eye.

By embracing these technological advancements, rail authorities can enhance their ability to detect, prevent, and mitigate risks associated with train derailments, ultimately improving the overall safety of rail transportation.


While no complex rail system can be entirely accident-proof, analyses of train derailment statistics, causes and prevention measures can hopefully help improve safety over time. This guide has aimed to provide an exhaustive look at where things currently stand.

As both freight and passenger transportation by rail continues to grow in the US, companies and regulators will need to remain vigilant through rigorous inspection, maintenance, training and innovation programs to reduce derailment risks as much as practical.

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