Lots of people ride the rails in our nation’s capital, either as commuters or tourists
It would be unusual to be injured because of a train derailment or crash. Railroads are highly regulated and extremely safe. The more likely way you could be injured in a train accident is if you have a slip-and-fall on a train or on the platform; or if you’re injured as a driver, pedestrian, or bicyclist crossing the train tracks. You also could experience a train-related injury if you’re a railroad employee.
Washington, D.C. is unique because the jurisdiction is only the city itself. Jurisdiction (the court that handles injury claims) usually lies in the location where the accident happened.
This could make cases complicated in places like Washington, D.C. or New York City, which both have commuters who cross state lines daily. Many New York City commuters come into the state daily from the tri-state area (which includes New Jersey and Connecticut), and Washington is the same — much of the D.C. workforce is traveling into the jurisdiction from Maryland and Virginia. If you’re in a train accident, where the accident was located will have a big impact on your claim.
Riding the train in Washington, D.C.
There are 2 primary commuter rail services in Washington, D.C.: Virginia Railway Express (VRE) and Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC). The combined average weekday ridership was about 60,000 people prior to the pandemic.
The Metrorail is another D.C. transit service that transports more than 600,000 people a day throughout the metro area and has 91 stations in D.C., Virginia, and Maryland.
If you’re traveling from another city, you can take the Amtrak rail system. Amtrak is an extensive network of trains that run throughout the U.S., and there’s a hub at Union Station in D.C.
Washington, D.C. Amtrak routes can connect you with locations in Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.
Real-life Washington, D.C. train accidents
- A 23-year-old woman was struck and killed by a Metro train at Union Station on June 23, 2021. Although it is classified as an “accident,” the investigators said that it appears that the woman intentionally placed herself in the path of the train. (source)
- On May 23, 2021, a man was struck by a Metro train on the Red Line at the NoMa-Gallaudet station. Emergency responders pronounced him dead at the scene. (source)
- On September 14, 2020, a person was killed after being struck by a train at Gallery Place at Chinatown Metro Station. Witnesses said the victim appeared to be “unsteady” in the moments before they fell off the platform. (source)
The common theme among these accidents is that in each, the victim was not a train passenger. They each were killed because they were hit on the tracks.
However, there have been a few incidents where trains actually did crash.
For instance, a Metro operator was killed during the Blizzard of 1996 because the train where he worked failed to stop at the Shady Grove station. It overran the platform and struck another train, which was unoccupied. The crash resulted from a failure in the train’s braking system.
In an incident in 2019, 2 train operators were injured after their respective trains collided between Foggy Bottom and Farragut West while moving toward their rail yards.
There were also 2 train collisions in 2009, in June and November. In the June incident, 2 Red Line trains collided, killing 9 people and injuring more than 70 others. The November accident resulted in 3 Metro employees suffering minor injuries.
Types of train accidents
There are a few ways you could experience a train accident:
- As a passenger in a train derailment or collision
- As a passenger due to a slip- or trip-and-fall or another type of accident that does not involve a crash
- As a driver, pedestrian, or bicyclist at a rail crossing
- As an employee of the railroad
Common causes of train accidents
- Human error. This could happen in any number of ways. It can be a passenger who leaves luggage in the aisle for someone else to trip and fall, or doesn’t properly stow an item in an overhead bin. It could also be a pedestrian or driver on the tracks — in other words, “human error” doesn’t always refer to the train operator.
- Equipment failure or defects. Trains are massive machines made up of many parts. While it’s the train operator’s job to keep a train properly maintained, and regulators are always checking to be sure this is happening, sometimes parts fail. If it’s something like brakes or a speed-control mechanism, it can lead to disaster.The other thing that has parts that could fail is railroad crossing warnings. Even though a train could be functioning optimally, if a railroad crossing warning device fails and a driver isn’t properly warned of a train approaching, it could lead to a serious accident.
- Heavy or shifting cargo loads. Usually, heavy loads are on freight trains, not passenger trains. Train travel is an efficient and fast way to transport heavy, sometimes hazardous, materials from different parts of the country. But if a load isn’t weighted properly, it can increase the risk of a train derailing or tipping on the tracks.
- Signal or crossing failure. This applies to warnings to drivers, but also to train operators with other trains. The engineer relies on signal crossings, too, because a train is usually not the only one using the track at a time.
- Track failure. Track failure could be caused by poor maintenance, weather conditions, or for other reasons.
- Obstacles on train tracks. An obstacle could be a vehicle, an abandoned bicycle, debris from a storm (like tree branches) or other natural objects, or even a person.
Liability for a Washington, D.C. train accident
Any transportation company that carries people or property from one location to another is called a common carrier. That means railroads like Amtrak and the Metro are both common carriers, and they have a duty of care to keep passengers safe.
What are a railroad company’s responsibilities to its passengers?
- To ensure that the train and tracks are maintained properly.
- To ensure that employees like conductors and engineers have proper training and experience to manage a train and its passengers.
The train operator works for either a private company or a public agency. However, even a private company like Amtrak is subject to stringent state and federal safety regulations.
Among these federal regulations are limits on the number of hours a train engineer or operator may work without a break. It’s crucial that train personnel get adequate sleep between shifts in order to perform at their best capacity when driving the train. However, fatigue is still a big problem in the train industry.
In some circumstances, a train driver is required to turn a train around and return it to a starting point for a new run before the driver can take a break — and that can mean a very long shift. And, not every train operator follows the rules. Train engineers do occasionally fall asleep on the job.
There are other potential defendants after a train accident, including the track owner (which could be a private company or government agency), car or truck driver who caused the accident, or the manufacturer of a part that failed.
Injuries to railroad employees
A railroad can be found liable for a worker’s injury if the railroad:
- Failed to provide proper safety training.
- Failed to provide adequate safety equipment.
- Required the worker to work longer hours than the regulations allow.
- Required the worker to perform under unreasonable time pressure.
- Failed to provide adequate employee supervision.
However, an injured railroad employee — unlike any other type of worker — doesn’t file a workers’ compensation claim. Instead, they file a lawsuit under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) to receive benefits for their injuries.
Under workers’ compensation, you don’t need to prove negligence in order to receive benefits. FELA is a little different because the injured worker does need to show that the railroad was negligent in order to be compensated for their work-related injury costs.
Washington, D.C. negligence laws
The District of Columbia follows a pure contributory negligence standard, which means if the plaintiff shares any degree of fault, they can’t recover damages for an accident.
Most of the time, a passenger who is injured in a train accident is not negligent. You can’t control the train, obviously, and if a collision happens, there’s nothing you could have done to prevent it.
But in other kinds of train accidents, you could be partially at fault and that can derail your ability to receive compensation.
Here’s an example:
Rider Rihanna needs to get a train from Union Station to New York. She has an important meeting in the afternoon, and the next train will get her there on time. But she’s running late. Still, Rihanna is determined to get on the train and she’s dashing through the station as fast as she can in order to make it.
Just before Rihanna gets to the platform, Careless Calvin spills a “big gulp”-sized drink on the platform, right where the door to the train is located. Calvin isn’t too concerned, but a station employee sees the spill. There are hazard cones nearby (and a mop in the closet), but Employee Edward is about to go on break. He sees the mess on the ground, but he figures someone else will take care of it. He tells Coworker Carrie that there’s a spill, and he vaguely describes where it is, but she’s doing something else and says she will get to it later.
Rihanna is just about to make the train, but as she runs for the door she doesn’t notice the spill. She slips and falls and is badly injured as she steps onto the train.
Can Rihanna claim that she was injured because of the railroad’s negligence?
Yes, but she might be unsuccessful.
Yes, the railroad station was negligent since both Edward and Carrie were aware of the spill and neither cleaned it up or made sure that someone else would take care of it. But Rihanna could be negligent, too, since she was running.
Although the spill wasn’t her fault, the station company could argue that if she had been walking at a normal pace and using her senses reasonably, she would have known it was unsafe to run on a train platform and she would have seen the spill and gone around it so as not to fall.
Under Washington, D.C. negligence laws, Rihanna would not be able to recover compensation if she had any fault for her own injury.
Preventing or avoiding a train crossing accident
Whether you’re a driver, cyclist or pedestrian, it’s important that you’re always aware of where a railroad crossing is and how to avoid an accident.
Here are 5 tips for avoiding a train accident as a driver or pedestrian:
1. Stay clear of a moving train.
The majority of trains carry cargo or freight that might include toxic chemicals or flammable gases or fluids. Even if there isn’t a large collision, there’s always a possibility of a chemical leak. Even if you’re certain that you’re far enough away from the train to avoid being physically hit, it’s important to keep ample distance in order to stay safe from exposure to toxic substances in the event of a leak.
2. Railroad tracks aren’t for recreation.
It might be tempting to walk, bike, jog, walk your dog, ride a motorcycle, take photographs or engage in other activities near train tracks because, for the most part, there aren’t other people around. But this is a mistake.
If you are in the vicinity of a train track, remove your earbuds or headphones. A train can be loud, but when coupled with other ambient noise you can miss hearing it, especially if you’re listening to something else and distracted. Many railroad fatalities happen because of people using train tracks for these reasons and they don’t see or hear the train approaching.
3. Never try to “beat” a moving train.
Consider the size and weight of a train as opposed to your car. There’s no question that the train would fare better in a collision than a passenger car or truck.
Next, think about the amount of time it takes your car to stop. The typical car traveling at 55 miles per hour would require about 300 feet to come to a full stop. A train, on the other hand, takes far more time and a much longer distance to stop, in part because the engine has hundreds of thousands of additional pounds behind it.
By the time the conductor sees a car or person on the train tracks, it’s likely already too late to stop a moving train before a collision.
4. Don’t rely on how far away you think the train is.
Visual distance indicators might be misleading. A locomotive is designed to be streamlined, which means it gives the appearance of being farther down the track than it actually is. If you see or hear a train, stay away from the tracks until it has passed, even if you believe it’s far enough away that you could cross in time.
5. Don’t assume you know the train schedule.
Maybe your home is near the train tracks and you hear the whistle reliably each day at 3 pm. Or perhaps you routinely cross the tracks as you head to work and you’re certain you know when to expect the train.
While the train schedule might be fairly regular, there are a variety of reasons why it might change — weather, loading issues, personnel changes, etc. Always be cautious and check for a train approaching, even if you don’t think it’s the right time.
Damages for a Washington, D.C. train accident
If you or a loved one were seriously injured in a train accident, you can claim damages to recover costs for items that include:
- 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 damages can also compensate accident victims 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.
- Wrongful death, if you’ve lost a family member in a train accident.