Blood on the Tracks: Train Accident Basics


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In 2000, a train owned and operated by Union Pacific Railroad struck and killed Charles Conway, a member of a paving crew working on a roadway near Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, Arizona. Conway was operating an asphalt roller and did not hear the train.

The train's engineer, Michael Coleman, did not see Conway on the track until immediately before the impact. Coleman, who has only one eye and limited field of vision and depth perception, failed to slow the train as it approached the intersection. Although other trains routinely slowed to 10 miles per hour at the intersection, Coleman allowed the train to pass through at 29 miles per hour. Union Pacific Railroad also failed to use flaggers at the intersection, as required by federal law, to signal incoming trains and remove construction workers from the tracks.

Conway's family sued the railroad, the city of Phoenix and his employer and ultimately received a jury verdict of $6.8 million against Union Pacific, including $5 million in punitive damages.

Train Accidents Have Catastrophic Results
Motorists are 20 times more likely to die in an accident involving a train than they are in an accident involving another motor vehicle, even though car accidents occur much more frequently than train accidents. This is not surprising, considering the sheer size of freight and passenger trains and the speeds at which they travel. A typical train weighs more than 200 tons, but may weigh much more. The train in the Conway case, for example, weighed more than 3,000 tons. And with increased weight comes increased potential for accidents: it typically takes a train traveling 55 miles per hour at least a mile to come to a complete stop - which means a train cannot come to a quick stop if a person or car suddenly appears on the tracks.

Types of Train Accidents
By far the most common type of train accidents are train-car collisions. In 2008, there were nearly 2400 car-train collisions in the US, resulting in 286 deaths and 935 injuries. These collisions are more likely to occur at places where train tracks intersect highways or local roads and do not have gates, flashing lights, traffic signals or other warnings to roadway users of a train's approach.

Other types of train accidents include:

Train-person collisions: Sometimes people think it is safe to use train tracks as a path to reach a favorite hunting or fishing spot or to ride their bikes and ATVs. Other times, people may simply get too close to the tracks and get pulled underneath a train when it goes by. In other cases, the train operator may have failed to signal the train's approach or may not have seen the person standing too close to the track. Collisions between trains and individuals resulted in 452 deaths in 2008.

Passenger injuries: Passenger trains are common carriers, which means that they accept money in exchange for transporting passengers. As common carriers, trains owe a higher duty of care to their passengers to protect them from harm while using their services. This duty extends to the train deck or waiting area where passengers board and exit the train as well as to the passenger compartments on the train. If a passenger is hurt while traveling on the train and his or her injury is caused by the negligence of the train engineer, conductor or other employee or a defective condition on the train itself, the passenger may have a right to recover for his or her injuries.

Common Causes of Train Accidents
According to the Federal Railroad Administration, the most common causes of train accidents in 2009 have been:

Track defects
Human factors
Equipment defects
Signal defects

Freight and passenger trains are largely regulated by federal law, but there are some state and local laws that apply to them as well. When train operators do not follow these rules, people often get hurt.

Federal Regulations
Some examples of federal regulations trains are required to follow include:

Speed: The speed a train may travel is restricted in certain places. Federal law sets the maximum speed based on many different factors, including the type of train and the class of track it is traveling on. Trains also may be required to maintain a lower speed when traveling through city limits or approaching highway intersections known to be dangerous.

Warnings: Even though trains have the right-of-way at intersections, they must signal their approach at crossings with highways. These warnings may include whistles, bells, flashing lights or a combination of all three. The warning must be given in a reasonable amount of time to warn potential motorists or pedestrians in the area of the train's approach.

Lights: If the train is traveling at night, it must use proper lights to make it visible to those who are on look-out at railway crossings.

In addition, train companies must:

Maintain trains and their equipment in safe working order
Hire qualified engineers to operate trains
Keep train tracks free from obstructions, including weeds and other overgrowth that may make travel dangerous or obstruct other obstacles from view
Watch for motorists and pedestrians at all railway crossings and take every reasonable precaution to avoid harm.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael Beale
Mr. Beale began practicing law in 1968. Prior to forming Beale, Micheaels & Slack, P.C. he was a partner at Jennings, Strouss & Salmon in Phoenix. Mr. Beale practices in the areas of general tort litigation, medical malpractice, products liability, personal injury, aviation law, insurance and utility litigation, representing both plaintiffs and defendants.

Mr. Beale has participated in well over 100 jury trials. He has been listed in the national publication, Best Lawyers in America , in every biannual edition since 1989. He is a Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, the most prestigious society of trial lawyers in the country, with membership limited to the top 1% of lawyers in the U.S. He is certified as a Specialist in Injury and Wrongful Death litigation by the State Bar of Arizona's Board of Legal Specialization. He routinely provides mediation and arbitration services to other attorneys and is a judge pro tern for the Maricopa County Superior Court.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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