Causes of Train derailments and liability-How to sue?

by | May 9, 2024 | Personal Injury, Train Accidents

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In the middle of February 2022, a BNSF train derailed in Frazee, Minnesota, causing another train stationed nearby to go off the track. Because the derailed cars carried lithium batteries and petroleum, nearby residents were evacuated as a precautionary measure. If the lithium batteries caught fire, they would emit toxic gases and create an inextinguishable fire. As a result of this Frazee train derailment, preventive measures were implemented even though no hazardous materials were spilled.

“My train of thought derailed. There were no survivors”. The quote can be related to our topic of discussion, train derailments.

What happens if a train derails?

Imagine a mammoth train speeding with passengers. If that train derails, the aftermath will be disastrous as the number of passengers on the train and the train’s velocity is more. The causes of train derailments can be devastating to the lives of passengers and their families.

Train accidents, collisions, and derailments can all result in fatalities. A train derailment occurs when the train’s wheels go off the track due to various factors. As you may be aware, America has approximately 600 railroads, thousands of miles of railway track, and approximately 209,000 railroad crossings.

The National Railroad Passenger Corporation, or Amtrak, formed by the federal government in 1971, operates in 46 states on 21,000 miles of rail tracks. Many other private companies that run freight trains also run passenger trains. However, trains are currently used only by a smaller percentage of the population for commuting. Currently, railroads are primarily used for freight transportation.

As per the Association of American Railroads, the United States of America uses 140,000 miles of railroads owned by the private for transporting freight. Passenger trains in the North East Corridor use electric power for efficiency and speed.

As we have seen in the beginning, train derailments and collisions cannot be avoided since passenger and freight trains run all over America. As freight trains also transport toxic substances and combustible products, collisions and derailments could cause catastrophic accidents. This blog delves into the reasons for train derailments and the liability in lawsuits.

Train Derailments Statistics

Do you know, how many trains derail a year? or how many train derailments happen a year in the US?

According to the Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Safety Analysis, around 1000 train derailments occur in the U.S. As per their latest data, in 2021, 965 derailments were caused by various factors. The only relief is that there was a 13.2% decrease from the previous year. As per the data in the past decade, Amtrak encountered 24 derailments every year. However, it was less when compared to the 43 annual train derailments in the decade prior to that. It is found that every 90 minutes, a train derails or crashes against some object.

In 2022, the Federal Railroad Administration reported at least 1,164 instances of train derailments across the U.S.


The prominent cause of train crashes is derailments. From 2001 to 2010, around 58,299 train accidents were recorded in the U.S., out of which 54,889 were derailments. The most concerning data is that every two weeks, a freight train transporting hazardous cargo derails in America, and many of them spoil the environment.

Louisiana found the worst derailment in its history, when a freight train derailed in 2008, the 10,000 gallons of hydrochloric acid spilled made many thousands of the nearby residents quit their homes. A yellowish pool of acid was found at the site of the derailment. The BNSF used lime to neutralize the acid. Many confronted eye and skin irritation as the toxic cloud permeated the area.

How many train derailments in 2022 turned people’s attention? In 2022, around 1,044 occurred, which was higher than the previous year. Have you wondered what causes a train to derail? Let’s analyze that.

Causes of Train Derailments

What causes train derailments in the U.S.? Mechanical as well as human errors contribute to every train derailment. Let’s see the main causes of derailments here.

  • Track-related errors: Government data shows that more than 400 derailments occur every year due to defective tracks. The common defects in the track are misaligned or broken rails and welds, broken or wide gauges, track geometry, buckled tracks, Joint bar defect, track-train interaction, etc. These track-related flaws are the leading causes of train derailments. The standard gauge should be 56.5 inches. The gauges widen due to loosened crossties or wear and tear over time and derail the train. Among these, broken welds and rails caused 15% of train derailments, followed by track geometry, which is the reason for 7.3% of derailments.
  • Defective train equipment: Mechanical defects or electrical faults can happen when the train is not maintained at regular intervals. Brake failures, bearing or wheel failures, broken wheels, suspension failures, and locomotive electrical failures contribute to equipment failure-related train derailments. Among these, bearing failure causes 5.9% of derailments. Mechanical defects can cause devastating aftermaths to a speeding train.
  • Railway workers’ errors: Poor decision-making in times of emergency, driving the train at excessive velocity than the speed limit, switching rule infringements, negligence on the part of the conductor, communication failure with the railroad operators, negligence in following the signals, careless veering of the train on the sharp bends and hills are some of the prominent human errors that can occur from the part of the train employees.
  • Negligent car or truck drivers and other people: Vandalism on the part of the rioters, careless driving on the part of the car or truck drivers at railroad crossings, and placing unexpected objects on the tracks can also lead to horrifying derailments.
  • Environmental obstructions: Floods, avalanches, hill or rock slides, heavy winds, storms, and snow are the major environmental factors leading to the derailment of the trains.
  • Unprotected railroad crossings: Around 80% of railroad crossings in the United States are unprotected. Poor visibility, malfunctioning signals, people trespassing on the railroad in vehicles before the train, and unexpected breakdowns of vehicles at crossings are all potential causes of train derailments at railroad crossings.

Worst Derailments in the U.S

The United States has experienced some of the most heinous train derailments in history. Let’s take a look at a few of them to get a sense of how serious the train wreck could be.

  • August 7, 1904, in Colorado: A flash flood caused by heavy rain smashed the wooden structure, derailing an express train traveling through Porter Creek Gulch. Ninety-six people were killed when the train crashed into the creek.
  • New York, 1918: An underground transit train derailed as it approached a sharp curve. The inexperienced driver, who was filling in for the strikers, didn’t realize he shouldn’t speed around a curve. His inexperience resulted in the deaths of 97 passengers.
  • Pennsylvania and North Carolina, 1943: A sudden outburst of flames caused one of the car’s axles to snap, derailing the train in Pennsylvania and flipping it onto the overhead frame. In the accident, 79 passengers died, and 117 were injured. Another derailment occurred in North Carolina as a result of the train’s excessive speed. Despite the fact that no one was hurt, another train approached, unaware of the derailment. Seventy-two people, including 52 servicemen, were killed when the second train collided with the already derailed train.
  • Alabama, 1993: An Amtrak train derailed into a swamp in Alabama, killing 47 passengers and injuring approximately 100 others. Due to fog, a towboat operator dragged six barges to an area where barges were not permitted. As the barges displaced the rail bridge, the train derailed.
  • Glendale, California, 2005: A Metrolink train derailed after colliding with an abandoned SUV, hurling itself at a parked freight train. 11 passengers were killed, and approximately 180 others were injured.
  • Bronx, New York, 2013: A Metro-North Railroad passenger train derailed as it sped through a sharp curve at 82 mph. in that, four people were killed, and 61 others were injured.
  • Philadelphia and Valhalla, New York, 2015: In Philadelphia, an Amtrak passenger train derailed while speeding through a curve at 100 mph. Overspeeding killed eight passengers and injured more than 200 others. In another incident in Valhalla, an SUV was discovered on the track as the Metro-North Railroad passenger train sped through. The collision with the SUV caused the train to derail, resulting in a massive fire that killed five passengers and the SUV driver. In the accident, 12 passengers sustained injuries.
  • Montana, 2021: Amtrak’s westbound Empire Builder train killed three people and injured 50 others. The cause of the derailment was unknown. A faulty rail or a collision with the switch could have flipped the train around in the Montana train derailment.
  • Pennsylvania, 2023: On February 5, 2023, a train carrying Vinyl Chloride in 50 cars derailed creating a massive fire on the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Vinyl Chloride is used in the making of many plastic products and is linked to increasing the risk of liver cancer and other cancers. People in the on-mile zone were asked to be evacuated by the government. Even after the fire was controlled, heavy black smoke was seen to be billowing around the area.

Liability in Train Derailments

If you are harmed in a railway derailment, you may be unsure who to sue. If the carelessness of others caused your injuries, the person accountable varies depending on the cause. The individual shall be held financially responsible for all financial compensation paid to the wounded. The railway company will be held accountable when a train derailment is caused by employee carelessness. As we saw in the previous train disaster instances, if the train operator or conductor causes an accident by rushing over a steep curve, the railway company will be held accountable for all wounded passengers. The corporation will be held accountable for the mistakes made by its personnel.

The train is the most secure mode of transportation. Ordinary obstructions will not simply derail a train. However, when it happens, it can lead to disastrous consequences. If the train’s technical faults create an accident, the train owner may be held accountable because it is their job to inspect the train before transporting people or cargo.

If a derailment was caused by an unwelcome object on the track, the owner of the object will be held liable for the mishap. If a damaged rail track contributed to the accident, the railroad owner or the body responsible for track maintenance would be held accountable. If a public entity or government owned the track, it would be liable for any damages.

In most cases, the defendants would be the train conductor or operator, property owners, train car or engine manufacturers, the Railroad Corporation, and crews responsible for railway maintenance.

Train Derailment Laws

Based on the nature of the accident and the people injured, train derailment lawsuits can be classified as personal injury, product liability, class-action, multi-district litigation, or wrongful death lawsuits. The lawsuits will be filed in accordance with federal and state laws. The Federal Railroad Safety Act (FRSA) of 1970 empowers the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to regulate the railroad industry in order to the FRA regulates the railway industry through the Signal Inspection Act, Accident Reports Act, Railroad Safety Appliance Act (RSAA), and Locomotive Inspection Act.

The Signal Inspection Act ensures that signal and train inspectors are qualified. They are obligated to ensure that all of the signals are operational and in good working order. The Accident Reports Act protects the safety of injured railway workers. The RSAA ensures railroad employees’ safety and maintenance standards. Even if the laws of the state in which they reside differ from those of the federal safety laws, the RSAA applies to all states in the United States. They ensure the use of safety equipment such as side-car handholds and grab irons, efficient hand brakes, power-driving wheel brakes, drawbars, and train couplers that can couple by impact.

Under the Interstate Commerce Act (ICA), the United States Congress regulates entities that transport people or cargo. Though the states have their own laws to regulate the railroad industry, they are superintended by federal laws. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) also investigates and determines the cause of train accidents, such as derailments.

The Federal Employers Liability Act [FELA] was enacted to protect the legal rights of railroad employees who are injured on the job. Congress passed the act in 1908 in response to an increase in railroad deaths. Though other employees can seek compensation through worker’s compensation, railroad workers are protected by FELA. The only distinction is that they must demonstrate that the railroad industry was negligent in causing their injuries. If proven, they can receive full compensation for their injuries, which would be far greater than worker’s compensation benefits. Under FELA, CSX, the leading rail freight transportation provider, was required to pay around $35 million to settle over 450 lawsuits alleging solvent exposure had caused brain damage.

Federal laws regulate licensing, equipment, and transportation-related processes, as well as violations of regulations, to ensure safety and determine liability in the event of an accident. The Railroad passenger transportation liability cap was raised to $322,864,228 in 2021. Earlier, all the commuter rail agencies are supposed to have liability insurance coverages of $294,278,983.


Let’s take a look at a couple of railway derailment settlements. The plaintiff and his family were waiting to cross at a Rockford railroad crossing when a CNRC train hauling ethanol derailed. The washout of a section of rail line near the crossing was conveyed to the involved parties about 20 minutes before the disaster, and the engineer also observed the track problems on time. However, he failed to slow the train down, leading it to derail.

The collision resulted in a large explosion and a fire that extended to the plaintiff’s automobile. The plaintiff suffered burn injuries, and his wife died on the scene. Three railroad corporations were destined to reimburse the plaintiff for around $23 million, and his daughter received $13.75 million for her injuries.

After 2.5 years of the derailment, the multi-district action involving the Philadelphia Amtrak train disaster and eight wrongful death claims was resolved for around $265 million. In these cases, the maximum sum was awarded as a damages cap in less time, and it was the biggest settlement ever in the train derailment lawsuit settlements. The wife of a deceased software developer was granted $57 million in a wrongful death claim following the 2017 Montana Amtrak train crash.

On behalf of the old couple Donald and Marjorie Varnadoe, who lost their lives in the Montana train derailment in 2021, their bereaved family has proceeded with a federal lawsuit against Amtrak and BNSF for wrongful death and negligence in February 2022. Let’s wait and see if the outcome of the lawsuit will bring solace to the grieving family.

Final Thoughts

If you are hurt in a train derailment, you have the right to sue the people who caused your injuries. The important factors considered were whether the train operator made an error while driving, whether a defective product caused the accident, or whether negligence in routine maintenance work caused the accident. Depending on the circumstances of the accident, liability for the railway derailments may fall on the railroad company’s owners, entities responsible for train or railroad maintenance, or manufacturers of train parts.

As a victim, you have the right to seek compensation for things like medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, emotional distress, and scarring or disfigurement. If you have lost a loved one in a derailment, you may be entitled to wrongful death benefits such as funeral or burial expenses, loss of consortium, loss of financial support to dependents, and loss of inheritance. Seek the assistance of a train derailment lawyer to expedite your litigation and maximize your claim.

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