Rail Transit Safety A Real Difference Between Cities?

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date


Subject Area

mode - rail, place - north america, planning - safety/accidents


rail, federal safety standards, fatalities


In December 2009, the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed to establish and enforce minimum federal safety standards for rail transit systems to correct the status quo with 27 state programs responsible for rail safety and the resulting inconsistency in practices and effectiveness. In the study described in this paper, a statistical analysis of publicly available safety data was conducted to address two questions empirically: (a) How safe is rail transit compared with other modes of transport? (b) Does a statistically significant record of inconsistent safety exist among rail transit agencies? The analysis found that travel by rail transit was generally safer than travel by automobile or truck, but statistically significant long-term differences in safety records existed in the array of domestic heavy rail and light rail operations. However, a detailed review of the findings showed the difficulty in assigning these differences because of inconsistent regulation and enforcement, as some of the most profound differences were found in agencies that operate in the same state under the same regulatory regime. Finally, the analysis found that incident and injury rates were statistically poor predictors of fatality rates. This finding suggested that rail transit fatalities were so infrequent that existing information concerning rates of incidents and injuries had little or no statistical value in predicting the incidence of fatal accidents. Further statistical analysis of fatality rates might be fruitful.


Permission to publish the abstract has been given by Transportation Research Board, copyright remains with them.