New Articles

What Can We Learn From the Recent Surge in Railway Accidents?

accident railway rail accidents

What Can We Learn From the Recent Surge in Railway Accidents?

The past few years have seen a worrying surge in railway accidents, particularly those involving hazardous materials. By analyzing the leading causes behind these accidents, transportation and logistics leaders can take action to improve rail safety. How serious is the increase in rail transportation accidents, and what are the main takeaways?

You can also Read 8 Reasons for Trucking Accidents & How to Avoid Them

Are Railway Accidents Really Increasing?

The past several years have seen headlines about several severe railway accidents, particularly train derailments. For instance, in 2023, 50 cars were derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, 20 of which contained hazardous materials. The derailment resulted in soil, water and air pollution, forcing over 1,000 people to evacuate the area. While train derailments are fairly common, incidents on this scale are not. However, they seem to be a growing risk.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics shows that train accidents have decreased significantly over the past 20 years. There were less than 2,000 total rail accidents in 2022, down from over 3,000 per year in 2004.

Injuries and fatalities due to rail accidents have decreased, as well. In 2017, there were 8,892 total reported injuries and 817 deaths. In 2022, there were 6,252 injuries and 954 deaths. However, it is worth noting that more injuries were reported in 2022 than in 2021 or 2020. 2022 had the highest rail accident injury rate since 2019.

There are a few important takeaways from this data. Overall, railway accidents are generally less common than 10 or 20 years ago. Recent data shows that accidents and injuries may be on the rise again, though. For instance, there were more rail accident deaths in 2022 than in 2017.

This trend applies to train derailments, as well. Derailments have fallen sharply over the past few decades. There were 2,639 derailments in 2004, while there were only 1,259 in 2022. However, there were more derailments in 2022 than in 2021 or 2020. Derailments make up 71% of all train accidents.

The Role of Infrastructure, Maintenance and Workers

The increase in railway accidents is certainly concerning, but analyzing the cause of this trend may help reverse it. Rail accidents are on the rise due to a combination of factors, mainly infrastructure, maintenance and worker-related issues.


One of the leading underlying causes of rail accidents today is aging infrastructure. Derailments are often the result of malfunctions or mechanical failures with the tracks or roadbeds, the structures that form the base of the tracks. Like any infrastructure, railways can degrade over time and lose structural integrity, especially if they aren’t getting adequate maintenance.

The issue of train length is also a factor here. Freight train length has steadily increased over recent years, with some trains reaching nearly 3 miles long. The longer a train gets, the harder it becomes to control. Poor control can have serious consequences for safety, operations and rail infrastructure since longer trains put more physical strain on the tracks.

The takeaway here is clear — railway infrastructure needs more attention. In some cases, this simply means better track maintenance. However, in other areas, it may require large-scale updates to aging, unsafe infrastructure.

Updates may be more critical in the states with the most rail traffic and the most rail accidents. As of 2022, Illinois and Texas are nearly tied for most derailments, both with over 13,000 on record since 1975. The two second-place states, Pennsylvania and California, have roughly half that many recorded derailments. These high accident rates can point analysts toward the states needing rail infrastructure updates most.


The way railways and trains are cared for has a major impact on safety. If rail operators cut corners or fail to provide enough time for maintenance, the likelihood of an accident increases.

Countless details go into ensuring rail safety. Something as simple as a malfunctioning bearing can trigger a serious accident. The high accident rates in the rail industry today indicate that rail companies need to allow more time for their employees to inspect and repair trains and railways adequately.

Maintenance is especially critical in hazardous materials transport. Sadly, many serious rail accidents in recent years have involved hazardous materials, including the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and an explosion at a rail yard in Omaha, Nebraska.

Hazardous materials already have strict regulations for storage and transportation safety. For instance, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) requires containers for hazardous materials to meet safety and design regulations to minimize the risk of a spill. Considering the extreme damage from train derailments involving hazardous materials, rail companies may need to adopt even higher standards for their freight cars.

Technology may also help address maintenance problems. Automation can help cover employment gaps and reduce the likelihood of mechanical issues going unnoticed. Rail companies could use technologies like sensors connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) and predictive maintenance equipment to improve train car monitoring and prevent accidents. 

Rail Workers

Human error is one of the leading causes behind rail accidents, but that may not entirely be rail workers’ fault. The number of people working in rail transportation in the U.S. fell 73% between 1980 and 2020, from 539,700 workers to 144,500. Between November 2018 and December 2020, the industry lost over 40,000 jobs.

At the same time, rail traffic has remained relatively steady. Since significantly fewer people work in rail yards and on trains than there used to be, smaller teams have to support a workload designed for far more people.

This shift means it’s much more difficult for rail employees to keep up with the demands of their jobs. The increased stress is a major cause of high workplace accident and injury rates. Stress also means rail employees are more likely to make mistakes on the job, contributing to the increasing rates of rail accidents.

Understaffing is a particularly big issue in maintenance. Many rail accidents are entirely preventable but happen anyway because a mechanical failure goes unnoticed. This fact indicates that rail employees may need more time to conduct thorough inspections. Allowing more time and resources could prevent hundreds of accidents.

Improving Railway Safety

The past few years have seen a sharp increase in railway accidents, particularly those involving hazardous materials. A few main factors are driving the uptick in rail accidents, including poor infrastructure, inadequate maintenance and staffing cuts. By addressing the leading causes behind recent rail accidents, transportation and logistics leaders can take action to improve rail safety for everyone.