What to Know About California Train Accidents

California railroad accidents

Federal railroad regulations affect how a personal injury case proceeds after a train accident

Many train-related fatalities are preventable. Few accidents involve trains colliding with other trains — most are because a motorist or pedestrian is on the tracks and the train can’t stop in time. Here’s how to stay safe around railroad crossings and what to do if a California train accident happens.

Train travel is very safe.

According to a researcher who compiled nearly a decade’s worth of data in the early 2000s, there are 0.43 train passenger deaths per 1 billion passenger miles. That’s far fewer than the 7.28 deaths per 1 billion miles in cars, but still more than the safest mode of transportation — airplanes.

In 2014, there were 769 railroad-related deaths in the U.S., but only 5 were the result of a train accident.

California fatal train accidents

More than 11.6 million people boarded an Amtrak train in California in 2018. The average trip was 136 miles, and the vast majority of travelers were coach/business class.

While Amtrak is primarily used for inter-city travel, California has several commuter train agencies, including:

  • BART
  • Muni
  • VTA
  • Caltrain
  • Altamont Commuter Express
  • Sacramento Regional Transit
  • NCTD
  • San Diego Trolley
  • LA Metro
  • Metrolink
Facing factsTrain travel isn’t just for tourists or commuters. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that there are more than 230,000 Californians employed in the rail transportation industry.

Since train travel is so popular, convenient, and ubiquitous, there’s a good chance you’ve traveled by train before—or will at some point. Although it’s a safe and efficient way to travel, accidents do happen.

Let’s take a look at the different types of train accidents, how injuries can happen, what to do if you’re injured in a train accident at work, and how to handle a train accident.

Types of railroad accidents

There are 4 main types of train crashes and train-related accidents:

  1. Pedestrian hit by train. The majority of train-related fatalities involve a person being killed as they walk along or cross a train track in the path of an oncoming train.
  2. Train crashes with cars. Roads criss-cross train tracks. Sometimes, a driver thinks they can “beat” the train, even when signals are flashing. In other situations, a driver might stop their car on the tracks while waiting for a light to change or when they’re in a line of traffic because they don’t see a train coming.
  3. Train collisions. Trains that collide with each other are rare, but when it does happen it can have catastrophic consequences because of the sheer speed and size of each locomotive.
  4. Derailments. A derailment happens when a train comes off the tracks. Usually, one train car pulls others off the track, and it could affect the entire train. A derailment could harm railroad workers, passengers, and even occupants of nearby buildings.

Causes of train accidents

The U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) tracks the following data reported by railroads:

  • Highway-rail grade crossing accidents
  • Rail equipment accidents and incidents
  • Casualties to people (both fatal and non-fatal injuries, including occupational illnesses of railroad workers)

The FRA investigates any train accident that results in a fatality or serious injury, and most accidents or incidents that result in any injuries.

The 6 most common causes of train accidents are:

  1. Human error
  2. Equipment failure or defect
  3. Heavy or shifting cargo loads
  4. Signal or crossing failure
  5. Track failure
  6. Obstacles on train tracks

The 2008 Chatsworth train collision

If you lived in or near California at the time, you likely heard about the catastrophic 2008 Chatsworth train collision.

On a Friday afternoon in September 2008, a Union Pacific freight train collided head-on with a Metrolink commuter train in the Chatsworth section of Los Angeles on a curved section of single track on the Ventura County line.

The investigation determined that the Metrolink train ran through a red signal and entered the section of track where the freight train had already been granted the right of way by the train dispatcher. It was discovered that the Metrolink train engineer was sending text messages while operating the train and was at fault for the crash.

The crash resulted in 25 deaths and 135 injuries, which made it the deadliest accident in Metrolink history.

How to prevent train crossing accidents

If you’re not a regular train traveler or worker, you’re most likely to encounter trains at crossing points.

Here’s how to protect yourself from a train accident at a crossing:

  • Stay clear of any moving train. You probably can’t tell by looking if a freight train is carrying hazardous material like toxic chemicals, flammable gases or fluids. Even if you know you’re far enough away that you won’t be hit by a moving train, give it plenty of berth in case anything goes awry and there’s chemical leakage.
  • Don’t assume you know the train schedule. Even if the train tracks are along your normal route to work or near your home and you think you hear the horn every day at a specific time, there are lots of reasons why trains might have an altered schedule. It’s never safe to assume that the 2pm train has already passed, just because it’s 2:15. Always be wary when you’re near train tracks.
  • Yield to a moving train. A train is heavy and large, and it can’t stop on a dime. Think about what it takes to maneuver a car quickly, and then put hundreds of thousands of additional pounds behind it. When a conductor sees a car or person on the train tracks, it’s likely too late to stop a moving train in time.
  • Don’t try to beat the train. Locomotives can be 10 feet wide and 17 feet high. Because of their streamlined shape, they appear to be farther away on the track than they actually are. If you hear or see a train, regardless of how far away it seems, stay off the tracks until it has passed.
  • Railroad tracks and rail stations aren’t for recreation. These areas are not designed or intended for walking, hiking, bicycling, motorcycling, taking pictures or other activities. Fatalities often occur when people use train tracks for these purposes because they don’t hear or see a train coming.

Who’s liable in a train accident?

A train is a common carrier, which is any entity that carries people or property from one place to another. A railroad company like Amtrak or a commuter train has a duty of care as public transportation to keep its passengers safe.

If you’re injured as a passenger in a train accident in California, there could be a lot of factors that determine whether the railroad company was at fault. The railroad company has the responsibility to ensure that the train and tracks are maintained properly and that any employees like conductors or engineers have the correct training and experience to manage a train.

But there are other parties who might have contributed to the accident.

  • Train operator (company or public agency): A passenger or freight train operator is responsible for keeping trains, rail cars, and other equipment working properly. The company is also obligated to train and supervise employees so that they’re equipped to do their jobs in a specific and correct way.
Federal regulations limit the number of hours a train operator or engineer may work. This is to ensure that train personnel are getting an adequate amount of sleep in between shifts and can perform at their best capacity while operating a train.

Even so, sometimes people are pushed past their limits. Fatigue is a big problem in the train industry, as it is in trucking, medical services, and other demanding professions. Often, a train driver must work a long shift in order to get a train turned around and back to the correct starting point for a new run.

Some train operators don’t follow the regulations for shift hours, and that can lead to problems like a train engineer falling asleep on the job.
  • Track owner: Different sections of track could be owned by different private companies or government entities. Whoever owns or controls the section of track where the accident occurred could be liable if there were any deficiencies on the track that contributed to the accident.
  • Driver of a car: If the crash was because the train collided with a vehicle on the tracks, the driver of the car could be liable.
  • Manufacturer: Equipment failure could include issues with the engine, signals, or any other part of the train or tracks. If there was faulty equipment on the train you were in, the other train in a collision, a signal, or elsewhere, the manufacturer of the part or component could be liable for your injuries.

The Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA)

The Federal Employers Liability Act is a law that protects railroad workers injured on the job. If you’re an employee of an interstate railroad company, you’re not covered by workers’ compensation like most other workers in California.

Instead, an injured railroad worker needs to file a lawsuit under FELA. The lawsuit would need to show that the railroad was negligent, and that the negligence caused the worker’s injury.

A railroad can be found liable for a worker’s injury if:

  • It failed to provide proper safety training.
  • It didn’t provide correct safety equipment.
  • It required the worker to work longer hours than regulations allow.
  • It required the worker to work under unreasonable time pressure.
  • It failed to provide adequate employee supervision.

Damages for a railroad injury

If you’ve been injured in a train accident, you might be able to recover damages. Calculating damages in a train accident lawsuit would work the same way as most other personal injury proceedings.

Enjuris tip: “Damages” is the legal term for money you receive to compensate you for costs associated with physical or emotional injuries, lost property or other financial losses.

In a train accident injury claim, you can seek damages for:

  • Medical expenses, including surgeries, hospital visits, doctor visits, medications, assistive devices, therapies, and any other item that costs money and is associated with your treatment.
  • Pain and suffering, if the accident left you with emotional issues like anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other illnesses. Pain and suffering also compensates for limb amputation, disfigurement, burns, and other permanent disabilities suffered from the accident.
  • Lost wages and future earnings can be claimed if the injury caused you to take time off from work, or if you’re no longer able to work in the same capacity as you did prior to the accident.
  • Property damage is also included in personal injury damages. If any of your property was lost or damaged, you can claim the amount required for repair or replacement.
  • Punitive damages are awarded in cases where the defendant’s behavior was particularly malicious or egregious. In California, the plaintiff needs to show that the defendant acted with “oppression, fraud, or malice.”

Wrongful death lawsuits after a train accident

If you’re the survivor of a family member who died in a train accident, you can file a claim under the California wrongful death law.

The damages for wrongful death in California include:

  • Funeral and burial expenses
  • Amounts the deceased person would’ve earned as income
  • Compensation for the loss of companionship and support (similar to loss of consortium)
Enjuris tip: California doesn’t allow punitive damages in a wrongful death action. However, some wrongful death actions are filed with a “survival” cause of action. That’s a lawsuit brought by a survivor on behalf of the victim’s estate to compensate for the deceased person’s losses (their losses, not the surviving family’s losses).

You may claim punitive damages in a survival cause of action.

What to do after a train accident

Once you’ve either received medical treatment or are in the process of recovering from your injuries, you’ll want to find a California personal injury lawyer.

When someone’s been injured in a car accident, negotiations between your insurance company and the other driver’s insurance company can sometimes reach a successful settlement.

A train accident is much more complicated.

Since there are so many parties involved, and some might be government agencies, a lawyer is best-suited to navigate the regulations and specifics involved in a railroad claim.

Enjuris tip: It’s best to avoid talking with any of the insurance companies that might contact you after a train accident. They’re trying to settle claims fast, for as little cost to themselves as possible, and often trying to quell media attention if it’s a serious or highly-publicized accident. In other words, they want to reduce their risks of legal claims and make the situation “go away.”

The best approach is to find a California train accident lawyer and let them handle the insurance companies. Your lawyer will understand the process, know the relevant laws, and is a trained negotiator. They’ll help you to recover what you deserve following an accident, and you can focus on your physical and emotional recovery.

Consider using the Enjuris California Personal Injury Law Firm Directory to find the best lawyer for your train or railroad accident claim.

The Washington Post, The safest — and deadliest — ways to travel; (2015)
What’s the Safest Mode of Travel?, tripsavvy.com (2019)
Fact sheet: Amtrak in California, Rail Passengers Association (2019)
Occupational Employment Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Accident Data, Reporting, and Investigations, U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Railroad Administration

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