Analysis of causes of major train derailment and their effect on accident rates

Liu, X., M.R. Saat and C.P.L. Barkan. 2012. Analysis of causes of major train derailment and their effect on accident rates. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board. 2289: 154-163. doi:10.3141/2289-20.


Analysis of the causes of train accidents is critical for rational allocation of resources to reduce accident occurrence in the most cost-effective manner possible. Train derailment data from the FRA rail equipment accident database for the interval 2001 to 2010 were analyzed for each track type, with accounting for frequency of occurrence by cause and number of cars derailed. Statistical analyses were conducted to examine the effects of accident cause, type of track, and derailment speed. The analysis showed that broken rails or welds were the leading derailment cause on main, yard, and siding tracks. By contrast to accident causes on main tracks, bearing failures and broken wheels were not among the top accident causes on yard or siding tracks. Instead, human factor– related causes such as improper use of switches and violation of switching rules were more prevalent. In all speed ranges, broken rails or welds were the leading cause of derailments; however, the relative frequency of the next most common accident types differed substantially for lower-versus higher-speed derailments. In general, at derailment speeds below 10 mph, certain track and human factor causes—such as improper train handling, braking operations, and improper use of switches— dominated. At derailment speeds above 25 mph, those causes were nearly absent and were replaced by equipment causes, such as bearing failure, broken wheel, and axle and journal defects. These results represent the first step in a systematic process of quantitative risk analysis of railroad freight train safety, with an ultimate objective of optimizing safety improvement and more cost-effective risk management.