Which Are Safer, Trains or Planes?

Explainer weighs the odds.

A Chicago-bound Amtrak train derailed Tuesday near Jackson, Miss., killing one passenger and injuring dozens of others. Which is safer in the United States, travel by train or travel by plane?

It’s incredibly difficult to compare the two, as a single catastrophe can wildly skew the numbers from year to year, and statisticians disagree on the best way to compare them. Car accident and fatality rates are often cited on a per-mile basis, but that isn’t really a good metric for airplanes. The overwhelming majority of aviation accidents take place during takeoff or landing while rail accidents can take place at any point during a journey. So a better, albeit still imperfect, measure is the number of fatalities per passenger.

Assessing the difference also means making a judgment call about which rail and air services to consider. The Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Safety Analysis tracks data not only for Amtrak, but also for short-haul, high-volume commuter lines like the Long Island Railroad. The most relevant data from the National Transportation Safety Board, which tracks aviation safety statistics, covers only “aircraft with 10 or more seats used in scheduled passenger service.”

These statistical complications leave any comparison open to second-guessing, but Explainer will give it a shot nonetheless. According to the FRA, there were four passenger fatalities on the rails last year, out of 493,996,586 passengers. And according to the NTSB, 19 airline passengers perished in American accidents last year, out of 620 million passengers. (That aviation figure doesn’t include four crew members who died in two separate incidents.) Break down those raw numbers, and U.S. air travel seems slightly more dangerous.

But virtually all of the rail passengers took short commuter trips, rather than the national Amtrak service. Amtrak carried only 24,594,785 passengers, and there was one fatality. So a proponent of aviation safety could point to that ratio and argue that flying is actually safer than traveling by rail. A railroad aficionado might then counter with a longitudinal analysis, making sure to choose a span of time that includes an unusually tragic year for air travel such as 2001, when the terrorist attacks contributed heavily to the domestic death toll of 483.

The debate gets really muddled when noncommercial air carrier flights are factored into the equation. This category covers nearly 215,000-plus aircraft, ranging from single-engine Cessnas to multiengine corporate jets to gliders and balloons. When these planes fly, they are not required to report their total flight hours, departures, or miles flown to the Department of Transportation. As such, it’s hard to accurately gauge their accident and fatality rates. The latest comprehensive NTSB study, released in May of last year, looked at the statistics from 1999. It found that general-aviation accidents resulted in 619 fatalities that year, with single-engine piston aircraft * accounting for 68.5 percent of the total deaths.

Trains, on the other hand, are surprisingly lethal to pedestrians and drivers. Last year, trains—primarily of the freight variety—killed 357 people at highway-rail crossings and 540 trespassers (such as train hoppers, vagrants, or the inebriated).

Despite all the grisly sounding data, the bottom line is that traveling by either rail or air is extremely safe and getting safer all the time. Last year was the safest ever for air passengers worldwide, with only 25 crashes of commercial airliners. And the overall accident rate on America’s train tracks declined by 63 percent between 1980 and 2001. Travelers who’d like to maximize their odds of survival are advised to stick with commercial air carriers, as opposed to small, single-engine aircraft. And to never, ever consume alcohol near the train tracks.

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Correction April 9, 2004: This explainer originally stated that single-piston aircraft accounted for 68.5 percent of general aviation accidents.  The aircraft in question were actually single-engine piston aircraft. (Return to the corrected paragraph.)