Taking the train involves no more danger than riding an airplane or an inner-city bus. It's far safer than driving on the highway.
But overlay the highway and railroad networks and trouble lurks.
Despite dramatic strides in cutting train-related fatalities, America's quarter-million railroad crossings remain a weak link in national transportation safety. Six in 10 have no safety lights or gates. It would cost billions of dollars to upgrade them, and even crossings with active warning systems offer no guarantees. Monday's fatal collision of a passenger train with a truck in Bourbonnais, Ill., killing at least 13, occurred at a crossing with lights and gates.
The accident - the nation's worst train wreck in six years - will likely strengthen calls for stronger protection measures, especially as highway and train traffic continue to grow. It comes at an especially awkward time for Amtrak, which is poised to build several high-speed, intercity train runs. The nation can make train travel safer, experts say, but it will have to push on a number of fronts.
"There's not a silver bullet," says Jolene Molitoris, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in Washington. "It takes a menu of options."
Thanks to a number of initiatives, the nation's railroad crossings are already safer. Since 1981, injuries have fallen by more than half and fatalities are down one-third. In 1996, the latest comparable data, traveling one mile on a train was nearly as safe as riding one mile on an airplane and 10 times safer than one mile on the highway, according to the National Safety Council in Itasca, Ill.
Safety experts point to several initiatives. For example, states and localities are removing unnecessary crossings - some 32,000 of them alone since 1992. They are nearly halfway to the FRA's goal of eliminating one-quarter of the crossings.
The FRA is also is working with a nonprofit advocacy group, Operation Lifesaver, on a public-education campaign called Always Expect a Train. Programs offer tips to consumers and educates police on the need to enforce the law when drivers try to beat a train despite warning signals.
Sadly, it's common practice, railroad experts say. "Our problem isn't that people don't see the train, they don't obey warning devices," says Merrill Travis, chief of the railroad bureau at the Illinois Department of Transportation. More than half of railroad-crossing accidents take place where active warning devices exist, according to Operation Lifesaver.
And the problem extends beyond a few outlaw drivers. For a project in North Carolina, cameras filmed the illegal track crossings that Norfolk Southern engineers face on a regular basis. "You would not believe the risks people took - school buses, police cars, ambulances, joggers," says Ms. Molitoris. Some states have been able to discourage many unsafe practices by beefing up enforcement of railroad-crossing violations.
But the problems are not limited to vehicles at railroad crossings. Slightly more people are killed while wandering onto railroad tracks each year than are killed at crossings.
Now, Amtrak runs the risk of causing more fatalities, safety experts say, by moving to high-speed rail among a handful of cities across the US. Yet high-speed rail is also pushing safety experts and technology companies to develop new barrier and sensor devices to make crossings safer.
Honeywell, for example, will test this June in Los Angeles a radar-sensing device that could warn trains about obstructions at an upcoming crossing. Nestor Traffic Systems in Providence, R.I., is testing another system using one or two video cameras. And in preparation for high-speed rail between Chicago and St. Louis, the Illinois Department of Transportation is testing a barrier system: a metal net set 100 feet back from the tracks that is strong enough to stop a semi-trailer truck that crashes into it at 45 miles per hour.
Such a system might well have prevented Monday's accident in Bourbonnais, says Mr. Travis of the Illinois Transportation Department.
But the technology doesn't come cheap. Installing standard lights and gates at a single crossing costs some $150,000. The net barrier costs three times that amount. The federal government has already spent $6 billion since 1974 to fit crossings at public roads with lights or gates or both. Still, 60 percent of those crossings have none of those safety features, says Ian Savage, professor of economics and transport at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
Some safety experts are calling for a complete overhaul of the railroad's operating philosophy. Today's warning system "was invented in the horse-and-buggy days, when speeds were low and driving was not so intense," says Peter Cunliffe, president of Movement Control, a consulting engineering firm in Newport Beach, Calif. Instead of putting all the onus on drivers to stop at crossings, trains should be prepared to stop when they sense trouble ahead.
That's quite a trick since the average freight train takes more than a mile to come to a stop. But with special lighted signs and the proper sensing devices, train engineers could get the warning in time, he argues.