High Speed Rail’s Strong Safety Record
The driver of the Spanish train that derailed and killed 78 people in Santiago de Compostela this week is being formally accused of reckless homicide by the government:
Visiting Santiago, the Spanish interior minister, Jorge Fernández Díaz, said there were “reasonable grounds to think he [Garzón] may have a potential liability”.
“He has been detained since 7:40pm on Thursday for the alleged crime of reckless homicide,” Fernández said….
According to reports in the Spanish media, after realising the magnitude of the disaster Garzón said: “I fucked up, I want to die.”
Spain’s track operator, Adif, has confirmed that the section of the track where the derailment occurred did not have an automatic braking system, and that drivers are expected to slow the trains to 80 km/h. Numerous reports indicate that the train was traveling much faster than that, perhaps as fast as 190 km/h.
Indeed, there have been a number of high-profile rail crashes over the years. In 1998, 101 riders were killed in Germany when a train crashed in Eschede. And in 2011, two of China’s newest, fastest trains slammed into one another, killing 40 people.
But those are exceptions to the rule, caused by poor maintenance and monitoring.
Rail, high speed or not, is one of the safest ways to get around. According to a National Safety Council review of 10 years of transportation fatalities, for every mile traveled, car drivers and passengers are more than 10 times as likely to die in accidents as passenger rail riders. In 21 years — between 1990 and 2011 — the Bureau of Transportation Statistics shows that nearly 900,000 people died in highway crashes, while fewer than 15,000 died in train collisions.
Other countries’ experience shows that high-speed rail can be even safer than the much slower U.S. trains. The bullet trains that zoom through France and Japan, for instance, testify to the astonishing safety offered by well-managed rail services. Each nation’s system has been in operation for more than 30 years and provided billions of rides.
Yet thanks to advanced safety systems and extensive maintenance, no passengers — zero — have died as a result of a high-speed train crash in either country. Improvements in the design of German trains and a review of maintenance operations in China have also prevented repeats of previous train accidents in those countries.
When you add together the Eschede, Wenzhou, and Santiago disasters, that’s still just three major crashes and less than 300 dead for high speed train travel. Air travel is still very safe and yet it has had many more crashes and a much greater death toll. Both the plane and the train are statistically far safer than the automobile, of course. It is estimated that 1.3 million people die each year in car crashes. That’s 4,000 times as many people than have died in those three HSR crashes.
On Thursday I laid out some important points for California to consider as it builds out its high speed rail system. All HSR operators should strive to build the safest infrastructure possible, rather than let austerity-minded politicians pinch pennies or let angry neighbors scale back a project’s scope. But even then, HSR still remains an extremely safe way to travel.
I’ve always wanted to visit Santiago de Compostela. And when I do, I’ll be taking the high speed train from Madrid to get there.