New FRA Study Re-Affirms Safety of Push-Pull Passenger Rail Operations

WASHINGTON – A comprehensive federal study of accident data found that push-pull passenger rail service has an excellent safety record and that a train being pushed has virtually no greater likelihood of derailing after a highway-rail grade crossing collision than one with a locomotive in the lead, Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph H. Boardman announced.

“Preventing accidents and protecting passengers have much more to do with improving safety than whether the locomotive is in the front or rear of a train,” Boardman said of the report’s findings. The study re-affirms the conclusions of a previous report issued in July 2005 by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) that reviewed the safety of push-pull operations.

The new analysis of grade crossing accidents found that from 1996 to 2005, only three push trains derailed out of 218 collisions and two pull trains derailed out of 290 collisions. This difference in the rate of derailment between push and pull modes is a statistically insignificant 0.69 percentage points. Including the intentional derailment of the push train involved in last year’s Glendale, Calif., Metrolink wreck – caused by a man contemplating suicide who parked his SUV on the tracks – the difference is still only a very small 1.14 percentage points, Boardman noted.

The report also determined that 27 fatalities occurred in push trains and 22 happened in pull trains during this same period. While passengers and crew members may be more vulnerable in a push train, the severity of the outcome in a high-energy event like Glendale is more likely to be influenced by chance than whether the locomotive is pushing or pulling the train, he added.

To prevent future passenger rail accidents, the FRA is conducting pilot projects with commuter railroads in Florida and Virginia to identify potential collision hazards on their systems and developing reasonable ways to address them. Also, earlier this year the FRA crashed two full-scale trains in a successful demonstration of crash energy management (CEM) technology designed to protect passengers with safety features such as designated crush zones located away from passenger seating areas, Boardman said.

Further, the FRA recently unveiled a new rescue training simulator that rotates a full-sized commuter rail car up to 180 degrees to teach emergency responders how to save passengers from rollover train accidents. And, the FRA intends to propose additional passenger rail equipment safety standards to strengthen existing federal regulations by the end of 2006.