Over the past year, train derailments and crashes have been in the news far more than normal. These derailments range from the highly publicized East Palestine crash, where toxic waste was spilled in a small local community, to lesser-known but still reported incidents like individual pedestrian or vehicle fatalities.
There are two fundamental reasons why these crashes have made the news more. The first is simple: derailments and other train accidents have been on people’s minds after the East Palestine disaster, so news outlets are more likely to report on them. The second reason is more of a problem: the rate of train accident injuries and deaths has dramatically risen in California over the past several years, according to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). In fact, the accident rate in California increased by 27.3 percent in 2020 and a further 9.9% in 2021.
That’s bad news for anyone who takes trains, travels near railroads, or lives near trains. Here’s what you need to know about the current risks of train crashes and how to hold transit companies accountable for the harm they cause.
The Rising Number of High-Profile Train Derailments
The first reason train accidents now seem so common is that the severity of derailments has increased significantly over the past year. Derailments have always occurred semi-regularly. In fact, according to the New York Times, there are more than a thousand derailments every year in the US. However, the cost of these accidents to property and human health has increased significantly over the past seven years. So, what changed?
The answer is regulation. Several years ago, the laws surrounding train safety and the safe transport of hazardous waste were cut significantly. Complying with these regulations cost companies money, so they shed the safety protocols as soon as they were permitted to do so.
Unfortunately, those safety regulations were key for mitigating the potential health risks posed by accidents. For example, the East Palestine train derailment likely occurred due to overheated wheel bearings. The crash would likely not have happened if the transportation company had been required to update its trains to have modern pneumatic brakes.
As a result, train derailments that normally would have been, at most, a local news event are now becoming significant health hazards and environmental tragedies reported nationwide. Overall, train accidents in general have become much more visible.
Causes of Train Crashes in California
The increasing awareness of train accidents and derailments comes at an important time. Deaths and injuries in California due to train accidents are on the rise, but the trend may not have received the necessary attention without more high-profile crashes. However, it will take time for new legislation and safety regulations to be implemented. Until then, the best thing you can do to keep yourself safe is to understand the causes of train crashes:
- Railway Employee Error: The FRA has identified that “human factors” cause 38% of all train accidents. This often refers to negligence by railway employees, such as operating the train while intoxicated, being drowsy or distracted, or simply failing to abide by normal safety regulations. Railway companies that refuse to offer workers guaranteed days off, sick leave, or other necessary time to rest make these errors more likely.
- Equipment Failures: Railway companies looking to cut costs often delay routine maintenance on their equipment, avoid making critical safety updates, and overload cars with cargo. These behaviors make the equipment more likely to fail unexpectedly and cause more significant harm in the process.
- Insufficient Warnings: Crashes are significantly more common where railroads intersect with roads or pedestrian walkways. When these locations do not provide people with adequate warning about oncoming trains, they put others at risk, especially vulnerable people such as children, the elderly, and the disabled, who are less likely to notice oncoming trains or react in time to avoid them.
Just one of these factors can lead to serious and even fatal railway accidents. If two or more are present, the risk to the public skyrockets.
Holding Transit Companies Accountable for Train Accidents
Railway companies are often liable for the harm that results when train accidents happen. If you have been injured in a railway accident, you can file a claim to seek damages and compensation for losses like:
- Medical bills
- Ongoing care needs for resulting chronic injuries
- Lost income and benefits
- Pain and suffering
- Property damage
- Legal fees
Even if you were partially responsible for the accident, California’s strict comparative negligence laws permit you to recover damages based on the other parties’ negligence. For example, you might be found 30% responsible for a crash because you stopped your car too close to the tracks. However, the transit companies may be 70% liable for failing to provide adequate warnings around the tracks. In that case, you could be awarded damages equal to 70% of your losses.
However, filing a claim is more complicated than you might expect. These crashes often require significant investigation to identify all potentially liable parties and determine the factors that led to the incident. Depending on the situation, responsible parties could include:
- The company that operates the train
- The train’s manufacturer
- The owner of the track
- Public transit agencies
- The public or private entity responsible for maintaining safety warnings around the tracks
The most effective way to hold the correct parties accountable is by working with an experienced personal injury attorney like those at the Law Office of Reuben J. Donig. Our skilled train accident lawyers can help you identify who might be liable for your injuries and help you file a claim. Schedule your consultation with our San Carlos personal injury law firm today to discuss the next steps in your case.