Types and Causes of Train Crashes and Railroad Accidents

Types and Causes of Train Crashes and Railroad Accidents

In our last post, we discussed the dangers of fatal rail accidents here in our part of the country from freight trains carrying hazardous cargo through our communities.  All kinds of volatile chemicals, from crude oil to molten sulfur and propane, are carried by rail through Illinois and Indiana every day.

Of course, railroad accidents and train crashes may not seem to be a tremendous risk to those who live and work in Indiana and Illinois.  After all, we’ve got enough to worry about driving home alongside all those big rigs and semi-trucks, much less fretting over the epidemic numbers of drivers who are driving distracted.

Surely a train crash isn’t that big of a threat?  The danger of someone being seriously injured or killed in a train accident is real for Hoosiers and everyone living and working in Illinois.  And it’s a bigger threat than many may consider simply because so many different kinds of dangers lurk in train transportation.

Types of Train Crashes and Railroad Accidents

People can die or be seriously injured in a variety of rail-related incidents.  Especially in Indiana and Illinois.  For more detail, see our prior discussions on this issue, e.g.:

What causes these serious and fatal rail accidents?  Causes of railroad accidents and train crashes include:

Pedestrians Hit By Moving Train

As we have discussed before, there is a real danger here in Indiana and Illinois of people being hurt or killed as they attempt to walk along a train track, or to try and cross the track before an approaching train blocks their path.

Car Crashes with Railroad Trains

Tragedy often strikes when someone driving a motor vehicle tries to cross a train track when a moving train is approaching.  Fatal auto accidents also occur when someone stops their car on the tracks, perhaps in heavy traffic or while waiting for a red light to change, assuming that no train is near or that they can move off the tracks in time.

Colliding Trains

Train collisions are often cataclysmic simply because two huge and heavy machines are involved, with at least one of these behemoths moving at considerable speed.


In a derailment, a train loses its place on the rail tracks.  Sometimes this involves a single car, but it can involve a series or cars or the entire train.  Derailments can cause tremendous harm.  Railroad workers are extremely vulnerable to injury or death in a railroad derailment.  However, train passengers as well as neighboring buildings and property and everyone in or near them at the time of the derailment is at risk of serious harm.

Causes of Fatal Train Accidents

What are the primary causes of fatal train accidents for railroad workers as well as the public at large? According to research provided by the Federal Railroad Administration, most rail-related injuries are caused by:

  • Human error
  • Equipment failure
  • Equipment defect
  • Cargo loads (too heavy; shifting)
  • Signals failure
  • Crossing failure
  • Track failure
  • Obstacles on the rail tracks.

The Federal Railroad Administration details the causes of train accidents by “train accident cause codes” found in its Guide for Preparing Accident/Incident Reports.  These go into industrial specifics on the causes of railway accidents, including things like:

  • track geometry
  • physical condition of rail employees
  • brakes
  • axles and journal bearings
  • rail joint bar and rail anchoring
  • environmental conditions
  • loading procedures.

Efforts to Improve Rail Safety

Starting this week, Congress will be officially investigating the dangers of freight travel in the United States, particularly that involving dangerous cargo and hazardous materials being carried by rail.   The House Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Material Subcommittee will begin holding hearings and taking testimony this week.

On April 26, 2017, the subcommittee will hear testimony regarding “Building a 21st Century Infrastructure for America: The State of Railroad, Pipeline, and Hazardous Materials Safety Regulation and Opportunities for Reform”.

Representatives from the heads of various national railroad companies as well as hazardous material suppliers will be appearing before the subcommittee to address its concerns over the dangers facing the public from railway transportation systems.

Why?  According to the subcommittee’s information, more and more fatalities and serious injuries are being reported regarding railroad accidents, and efforts to regulate and control these dangers are not working.

See, “Summary Of Subject Matter” of the Committee for Transportation and Infrastructure sent to the House Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Material Subcommittee on April 21, 2017.

Safety Tips for Railroad Crossings

Congressional investigations into the dangers of hazmat trains moving through Indiana and Illinois is a good thing, particularly with the volume of crude oil trains and other hazardous materials that move daily along the rails here.

However, the reality is that our part of the country must learn to live with the dangers of train transportation and coexist with it until additional safety measures are implemented. 

So what can we do to minimize our risk of harm in a railroad accident or train crash?  From the Indiana Department of Transportation, and our past discussions, some rail crossing safety tips:

  • You don’t know if the train carries dangerous cargo. You cannot distinguish if a particular train passing by your school or home, or moving alongside your car or SUV on the highway, is carrying toxic chemicals, flammable fluids, or other hazardous materials. It’s best to assume that the train does carry hazmat cargo, to be on the safe side.  Give it lots of leeway.
  • Remember that trains do not keep a set schedule. They can appear on the tracks at any time.  Just because you usually see the crossing lights signal a passing train at noon but never after four o’clock does not mean that a train may not barrel down that track at 4:30 this afternoon. You cannot predict a schedule because there isn’t one.
  • Respect the train. It’s heavy, it’s big, and it takes a tremendous amount of time and distance to stop.  Yield the right of way to it, even if you think that you should be able to continue forward.
  • Don’t try and beat the train. Locomotives alone are huge (InDOT measures them at 17 feet high and 10 feet wide).  They will appear to be farther down the track than they are.  It’s an optical illusion.
  • Stay away from railroad tracks and rail property. Tracks, service roads, and the area near the rails themselves are owned by the railroad companies.  These are not places to walk or hike, or to ride a bike or motorcycle. Many fatal accidents happen in these areas, and oftentimes it’s because the people simply didn’t hear the fast moving train approach until it was too late.

Railroad Workers and Train Accident Victims

Not everyone who is hurt or killed in a train accident can file the same type of legal claim for damages.  The remedies available to them will depend upon their relationship with the railroad company that operates the train and owns the rail track line.

Railroad workers must file their accident claims pursuant to the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA).

Injured victims and their families must file their train crash claims under the pertinent personal injury laws of Indiana and Illinois and the appropriate wrongful death statutes. 


If you live or work or drive near a railroad track in Indiana or Illinois, then please be aware of the dangers involved in any kind of railroad accident or train crash.  These types of incidents are often deadly.  Be careful out there!


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