Safety of high-speed trains among transportation's best No passenger deaths at speeds above 120 mph before German crash


Before the spectacular crash of a German Intercity Express train, the world's high-speed trains had one of the best safety records of any mode of transportation.

Rail experts estimated that more than 3.5 billion passengers had ridden trains in France, Germany, Japan, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and the United States at 120 mph or more over the last 30 years -- without a single passenger fatality at those high speeds.

"Until [Wednesday], high-speed rail was the safest way to go," said Joseph Vranich, the Washington-based author of the book "Supertrains: Answers to America's Transportation Gridlock."

Amtrak has operated trains on some sections of its Northeast Corridor line between New York and Washington for more than a decade at 125 mph, the same speed the derailed German ICE train was going.

Usually, only premium-fare Metroliners hit that speed, and only on short, straight, stretches of track in rural Maryland and between Trenton and New Brunswick, N.J.

The only Metroliner passenger killed in a rail accident died in 1980, when a piece of steel on a work train on an adjacent track shattered a window of a Metroliner traveling less than 120 mph, Amtrak spokesman Rick Remington said.

Amtrak is in the midst of an upgrade of the Boston-Washington Northeast Corridor that will allow trains to speed as high as 150 mph on new track being laid in some sections of New England.

The new trains will reach a top speed of 135 mph on the New York-Washington part of the line.

The trains, due to start running at the end of next year, will use a combination of technologies already tested on trains running in France and Canada.

The new Amtrak cars are being designed to sustain a crushing force of 800,000 pounds, twice what European trains are designed to withstand, Amtrak's Remington said.

The Amtrak cars are also being made of stainless steel, which is stronger than the aluminum used in cars on German ICE trains, he said.

The Amtrak cars will have steel bars and couplers linking each car to the next, a feature designed to keep the cars from separating in a crash, he said.

Rail cars on France's TGV network, the world's fastest system, on which trains can cruise at around 190 mph, are safer than their German counterparts, said, Murray Hughes, editor of Railway Gazette International in London.

"TGV carriages have a different design of coach linked by articulation," Hughes said. "German coaches have a set of wheels at each end.

"TGV's wheels straddle the gap between coaches. This gives a continuous structural link along the train. If forces seek to derail [a train], the carriages will tend to be held upright by the other carriages."

Rail experts say the safest way to run a high-speed railroad is to have special lines for fast passenger trains, similar to the way the French operate their TGV trains.

Running fast passenger trains on tracks where slower commuter trains and freight trains also operate presents inherent risks, Vranich and others said.

The Northeast Corridor is a mixed-use line, shared on a daily basis by more than 100 Amtrak express trains, hundreds of commuter trains and dozens of freight trains from other railroads.

The worst accident in the Northeast Corridor occurred Jan. 4, 1987, when Amtrak's Colonial train, traveling less than 120 mph, derailed near the Susquehanna River in Maryland after hitting two Conrail locomotives that had run a red signal and strayed into the passenger train's path.

Sixteen people died, and more than 200 were injured in the wreck.

Pub Date: 6/06/98

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