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STILL OUT ON A LIMB

Fear of Trains?

I admit it: I’m a sucker for trains. I fell in love with New York City subways as a child. Sometimes on weekends my brother and I picked a line, usually one with a long elevated section, rode it to the end and then took it back home. Starting in the fourth grade, I took the train to school from the Upper West Side to Greenwich Village. I’d stand at the front window of the first car staring at the onrushing rails, signals and stations, pretending to be the motorman. After we moved to Westchester when I was a teenager, I’d ride what was then called the Grand Central Railroad (now MetroNorth) into the city whenever I could.

Now my favorite way to get to New York is to drive to New Haven and take MetroNorth. Other people get work or reading done on the train. I can’t; I’m transfixed by the world passing by. I was so excited to ride the bullet train in Japan a few years ago. And while I’m not sure when we’ll manage it, I’m already dreaming about taking the Canadian National Railroad with Elli from Toronto to Banff and Jasper.

The mass media histrionics in the wake of every deadly commuter rail accident troubles me. Are my trusted trains becoming unsafe? I suspected, however, that even with the recent spate of MetroNorth commuter rail accidents, it was likely that passenger trains remained safer than driving. So I checked it out. I asked a transportation expert friend for research tips to find accurate information on the relative safety of passenger rail versus auto travel.

While the figures for 2014 aren’t out yet, motor vehicle crashes have resulted in 32,000 to 35,000 deaths annually since 2010. That translates to a death rate of slightly over 1 per 100 million miles travelled per year. This figure underestimates the peril to car and small truck drivers and their passengers, because it includes heavy truck and bus riders who have a much lower accident mortality rate.

As of 2013, travel on intercity rail was about 20 times safer than driving. Impressive as that number is, it actually exaggerates the danger to train passengers because most of the reported fatalities are people in cars that get hit by trains at railroad crossings. Incidentally, a surprisingly high percentage of those deaths are ruled suicides.

While a couple of recent accidents may have put a dent in rail’s safety superiority, the bottom line remains that you are much safer traveling in a train than in a car.

I can’t help but wonder if there is a pro-auto, anti-train, bias in the media’s fear-mongering about commuter rail service. Oil companies and the automobile industry are acutely aware of the threat an efficient rail poses to their profits, and they are not above badmouthing such travel in order to undermine efforts to expand and upgrade train service. Don’t be fooled, even our outdated, and underfunded rail system is worth riding. I will continue to take the train whenever I can.
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