The United States rail network consists of more than 140,000 miles of track. Every day freight trains travel across the country carrying 5 million tons of goods, and passenger trains transport roughly 85,000 passengers.
The last couple of decades have been relatively safe for rail travel, due in part to a recent reconfiguration of the tracks and various technological advancements. But, rail travel hasn’t always been safe. From derailments to head-on collisions, the 19th and 20th centuries were particularly deadly.
Here’s a look at the 5 deadliest train disasters in US history:.
5. The Wellington Avalanche Disaster (96 dead)
Most train accidents are caused by operator error or faulty equipment. But the 5th deadliest train accident on our list was caused by an avalanche.
On March 1, 1910, a wall of snow more than 14 feet high came loose and slammed into 2 passenger trains, dragging the trains 150 feet down into the Tye River Gorge. In all, 96 people were killed, making it the deadliest avalanche in US history.
Some good did come from the accident. The avalanche changed rail travel throughout the Cascade Mountain Range, and the Great Northern Railroad built massive concrete snowsheds over miles of tracks. Later, a tunnel was added to cover tracks at lower elevations.
4. The Eden Train Wreck (97 dead)
On August 7, 1904, the No. 11 Missouri Pacific Flyer leaving Denver, Colorado, for St. Louis, Missouri, crossed a wooden trestle bridge. A flash flood struck and swept the train into the river.
The engineer had been warned about the weather and, though he slowed the train before crossing the bridge, it wasn’t enough to prevent the disaster. Of the 125 people who were on the train, 97 lost their lives.
3. The Ashtabula River Railroad Disaster (98 dead)
On December 29, 1876, a Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway train was traveling with 11 railcars, 2 locomotives, and 159 passengers. While crossing a railroad bridge over a gorge of the Ashtabula River in Ashtabula, Ohio, the 11-year-old bridge collapsed.
As the train plummeted into the ice-cold water below, oil lamps and coal heating stoves ignited, setting the railcars on fire. Of the 159 passengers and crew, 98 were killed.
It was later determined that a faulty design caused the bridge to collapse. In fact, it can be said that the rail accident actually caused 100 deaths, as the 2 bridge designers committed suicide soon after the accident.
2. The Great Train Wreck of 1918 (101 dead)
Two trains, 1 track.
Head-on collisions are the sort of accidents that movies are made about. On July 9, 1918, 2 trains on the NC&StL railway line collided at 50 miles per hour on a stretch of road known as “Dutchman's Curve.”
Upon colliding, some passenger coaches “telescoped,” pushing through the cars ahead and destroying everything in their path. At least 101 people were killed, and thousands of children from the nearby Catholic Children’s Home witnessed the accident.
The cause of the accident was human error. Specifically, the engineer of 1 of the trains failed to adhere to the written right-of-way rules and, instead of pulling onto the side track to let the other train pass, continued full speed ahead on the main track.
1. The Malbone Street Wreck (102 dead)
All train crashes are tragic, but the Malbone Street Wreck is commonly considered the worst train crash in American history.
On November 1, 1918, a packed Brighton Beach-bound train was speeding through a tunnel under Brooklyn’s Malbone Street. As the train approached a curve designed to be taken at 6 miles per hour, the motorman kept the train at roughly 35 miles per hour. The train derailed, killing 102 people and injuring many more.
The cause of the accident was human error, attributed largely to the fact that the 25-year-old driver was inexperienced and only working due to the regular motormen being on strike.
Extra: The Buffalo Bill Show Train Wreck
Though no humans were killed, more than 100 show animals were killed when the train carrying Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show crashed into another train whose engineer believed Buffalo Bill’s train had already passed.
Cody’s favorite horse, “Old Pap,” died in the collision and Annie Oakley, the headliner for the show, suffered temporary paralysis.
Most train accidents aren’t as devastating as these 5, but train accidents do still happen. In fact, according to the US Department of Transportation, hundreds of people are injured in train accidents every year.
Let’s take a quick look at the three deadliest train accidents since 2000:
- The Chatsworth train collision (25 dead): On September 12, 2008, a Union Pacific freight train and a Metrolink commuter train collided head-on in the Chatsworth neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. This fatal accident killed 25 individuals, including the Metrolink train's engineer, 46-year-old Robert M. Sanchez. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that Sanchez ran a red signal because he was distracted while texting on duty. Many survivors sustained critical injuries, necessitating an extensive period of hospitalization. The disaster also led to legal challenges and sparked public debate on safety regulations, resulting in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008.
- Graniteville train crash (10 dead): On January 6, 2005, a rail accident occurred in Graniteville, South Carolina, when two Norfolk Southern trains collided due to a misaligned railroad switch, resulting in the release of toxic chlorine gas. Nine people were killed immediately, and over 250 individuals required treatment for chlorine exposure. One more death occurred later due to prolonged chlorine inhalation exposure. The accident displaced 5,400 residents for nearly two weeks during the cleanup process.
- Philadelphia train derailment (8 dead): On May 12, 2015, a New York City-bound Amtrak train derailed near Kensington, Philadelphia, resulting in 8 deaths and more than 200 injuries. When it derailed, the train was traveling at 102 mph in a 50 mph zone. The National Transportation Safety Board attributed the accident to the engineer's distraction, suggesting a computerized speed-limiting system could have prevented it. After the derailment, Amtrak installed the Automatic Train Control (ATC) system, which limits a train's speed.