I choo-choose you! To be the train car most likely to let me live!
December 9, 2013 12:32 PM   Subscribe

In two of this year's notable high-speed train derailments--Compostella in Spain in July and the New York Metro North crash on Sunday--the train driver survived, but many of the passengers and crew, who were presumably in cars further back from the engine car, did not. Is there any data from any safety board (NTSB or similar in other countries) that suggests any particular train cars are more safe than others in the event of a derailment?

Obviously, every crash is unique--though the fact that these train drivers survived these breathtaking accidents has made me wonder whether there is something to the position within the train that has an effect on survival. For instance, could one conclude that the front car is more likely to be launched straight from the track, with the next few cars more likely to jackknife and cause injury? Are the last cars the least likely to derail? Are there differences in outcomes between types of train (high-speed trains versus intercity commuters versus subways)?

Just idle curiosity--by virtue of where the stairs are in the terminal stations for my daily subway commute, I ride the last car in the morning and the front car at night.
posted by Admiral Haddock to Travel & Transportation (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The town where I grew up was the site of a head on crash between two commuter trains several decades ago. As a result, my mom always warned me to never ride in the frontmost or rearmost car of a train. From what I've read about actual outcomes in that particular kind of incident, she might be right. However, I have no idea how this comes to bear specifically on derailments -- could be precisely the opposite.
posted by telegraph at 12:51 PM on December 9, 2013

Watching NBC news there was an NTSB guy on who said that the safest place to be in a derailment is the rear of the train as they usually start at the front. But that train derailments are actually quite rare so this is really only a marginal safety consideration and doesn't help in the event of a rear-ended train (which is also really rare).

He added that really the only thing that would really improve rider safety in derailments and crashes is adding seat belts but that is never going to happen.
posted by magnetsphere at 12:56 PM on December 9, 2013

Here is a bit of discussion of whether the "keep the first 11 rows empty" rule recommended by some when the engine is pushing the cars is effective or not.
posted by misterbrandt at 1:04 PM on December 9, 2013

I don't know if this answers your question exactly, but the NTSB got onto the Washington Metro after our major crash for trying to "belly" older, less-safe cars in between newer, safer cars in trains in an effort to mitigate potential damage. NTSB basically said this was just a way to whitewash their continued use of the older cars.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 1:06 PM on December 9, 2013

This is for freight trains, but it found that "The first vehicle (lead locomotive) in the freight train is most frequently the first to derail. In one-quarter of all
derailments, the point-of-derailment (POD) is located within the first ten positions of the train. The relationship between point-of-derailment (normalized by train length, NPOD) and position-in-train indicates that a large proportion of derailments initiate at the front of the train. This is often the case for track-caused derailments."

See also High-Speed Passenger Train Crashworthiness and Occupant Survivability: They ran 7 collision scenarios and plotted the accident survivability along with other data; chart on penultimate page.

And ANALYSIS OF OCCUPANT PROTECTION STRATEGIES IN TRAIN COLLISIONS: "Compartmentalization is an occupant protection strategy that requires seats or restraining barriers to be positioned in a manner that provides a compact, cushioned protection zone surrounding each occupant. When occupants are allowed to travel large distances before impacting the interior, restrained occupants have a much greater chance of survival. Fatalities from secondary impacts are not expected in any of the scenarios modeled if the occupant is restrained with a lap belt and shoulder harness."

Many more reports here (some broken links, but if you google the report names they come up). Specifically, this one.
posted by melissasaurus at 2:04 PM on December 9, 2013

Mod note: Answer the question being asked please.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 4:11 PM on December 9, 2013

-the train driver survived, but many of the passengers and crew, who were presumably in cars further back from the engine car, did not.

Note that the engine was in the back in the NY accident. It's the darker car to the left in this hi-res photo.
posted by smackfu at 6:18 AM on December 10, 2013

Response by poster: Note that the engine was in the back in the NY accident.

Excellent point! I had forgotten that.

Excellent reports, melissasaurus! I will read them on the, er, train.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:00 PM on December 10, 2013

Note that the engine was in the back in the NY accident.
This is true, but a bit misleading, since the engineer was in a control cab in the last car of the train. The rear cab is linked to the engine, so the train can be controlled from either end. In general, federal regulations require the person controlling the train to be on the leading edge of the movement. There are, of course, exceptions, but a 79mph passenger train in revenue service certainly doesn't qualify.

As a counterpoint, in at the VIA derailment in Canada last year, the engine rolled on its side and then struck a building adjacent to the track. The three people in the engine were killed, but everyone else survived (some with injuries).

And as you note, the type of incident matters. The two you cited are both overspeed incidents, as was the VIA derailment. Obviously, a head on or rear end collision will produce a lot more injuries nearer the point of impact, though older cars are also prone to telescoping, which can happen anywhere within the train. Track/equipment failures can affect any car in the train, and may cause the cars to be thrown into the path of an adjacent train, or into an obstacle adjacent to the tracks.
posted by yuwtze at 7:47 PM on December 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

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