Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date


Subject Area

operations - traffic, operations - frequency, planning - safety/accidents, planning - safety/accidents, mode - rail, mode - tram/light rail


Trauma, Traffic fatalities, Safety measures, Safety, Rapid transit, Railroad commuter service, Rail transit, Public safety, Light rail transit, Injury, Injuries, Heavy rail transit, Fatalities, Fatal accidents, Death, Costs, Commuter rail, Automated guideway transit, AGT, Accidents, Accident types, Accident rates, Accident frequency, Accident costs


Safety must come first, but absolute safety may not be fully attainable. Urban public transit suffers almost 60,000 accidents per year at an estimated cost of $360 million. Each major accident is thoroughly investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, but its recommendations are not always implementable. This analysis has been made to review the relative safety of alternative modes of urban travel, particularly rail. It may be useful in determining where effort and priority should be focused for improvement. Fatalities are the most certain measure of accidents, as most other measures, such as collisions and injuries or damages, are limited by differing state rules on reporting. Costs are a reliable measure of accident severity, as they are audited and reported annually with respect to their magnitude. This analysis compared the fatality rates, the personal injury rates, the cost, and the types of accidents among the alternative modes of urban travel. The four major modes of rail travel are analyzed separately to assess their relative safety. Rail rapid transit (heavy rail) has very few grade-crossing accidents by definition. Commuter rail has low on-board accident rates because most passengers are seated for longer trips. Light rail suffers the most collision accidents per passenger kilometer because of street operation but experiences the fewest other types of accident. Automated guideways experience no grade-crossing accidents but have a high rate of station accidents. Automobiles experience the most fatalities, but the injury rate is indeterminate because of state cutoff rules on reporting at differing levels of accident cost. Almost all transit accidents are reported. Fatalities will be measured by the number per 100 million passenger km and per 100 million passenger mi. This is the standard measure for air and highway travel. Injuries will be measured per 1 million passenger km and per 1 million passenger mi because there are so many more of them. It is a simple matter to multiply by 100 to obtain a comparison with the fatality rate. It would appear, based on the casualty rates and cost of accidents, that rail transit is the safest way to go, but improvements are still necessary.