What’s Behind Train Derailments and Are They Happening More Often?

The Wall Street Journal analyzed more than 20 years of federal data on accidents

ILLUSTRATION: Taylor Umlauf/The Wall Street Journal

Recent train derailments, including one in a small Ohio town, have prompted officials to examine what is causing the accidents and whether they are happening more frequently. 

Derailments rank as the most common type of accident involving major freight railroads, federal data shows. Equipment failures are increasingly responsible for derailments, and problems with equipment and train tracks accounted for nearly 60% of derailments nationwide last year. 

To better understand train derailments, The Wall Street Journal analyzed data that railroads filed with both the Federal Railroad Administration and the Surface Transportation Board. When possible, the data reflects accidents and derailments on so-called main lines, encompassing incidents outside of rail yards and on tracks that pass through communities such as East Palestine, Ohio, the site of a Feb. 3 derailment involving Norfolk Southern Corp.

The number of derailments among major freight railroads has fallen sharply since 2000, data shows. However, the rate of derailments for some railroads has increased in recent years as they haul more freight over fewer train miles.

Rail accidents by type, 2000 to 2022

Highway-rail crossing

23%

Derailment

Other

54%

11%

Collision

7%

Obstruction

5%

Highway-rail

crossing

23%

Derailment

Other

54%

11%

Collision

7%

Obstruction

5%

Highway-rail

crossing

23%

Derailment

Other

54%

11%

Collision

7%

Obstruction

5%

Note: Train accidents on main lines for the seven major railroads: Union Pacific, BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern, Canadian National, Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern.
Source: WSJ analysis of Transportation Department data

The number of derailments is heaviest in counties closest to where major rail hubs lie. Cook County, Ill., home to Chicago, ranked No. 1 in terms of derailments—with 144—while Kern County, Calif., and Harris County, Texas, were No. 2 and 3, respectively.

Train derailments by county, 2000 to 2022

Railway

East Palestine

Number of derailments

150

50

10

Railway

East Palestine

Number of

derailments

150

50

Railway

East Palestine

Number of

derailments

150

50

Note: Data for main line derailments for the major seven railroads.

Source: Transportation Department
Emma Brown/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Equipment failure was the most common reason cited for derailments among the major freight rail carriers last year. That is a change from years past when track failures ranked No. 1.

Derailments by cause, 2000 to 2022

23% of train derailments

in 2022 were caused by

track failures.

Track failure

36%

Equipment failure

24%

Human error

17%

Other*

2000

'05

'10

'15

'20

23%

Track failure

36%

Equipment failure

24%

Human error

17%

Other*

2000

'05

'10

'15

'20

23%

Track failure

36%

Equipment failure

24%

Human error

17%

Other*

2000

'05

'10

'15

'20

*Includes signal problems.
Note: Data for main line derailments for the major seven railroads.
Source: WSJ analysis of Transportation Department data

Executives from railroads and an industry trade group point to progress in reducing the total number of derailments over time. Technologies such as temperature sensors monitoring for equipment issues along rail tracks in addition to other safety practices have contributed to the decline, they say.

Train derailments by year

900

600

300

0

2000

'05

'10

'15

'20

900

600

300

0

2000

'05

'10

'15

'20

900

600

300

0

2000

'05

'10

'15

'20

Note: Train derailments on main lines only.
Source: WSJ analysis of Transportation Department data

Most large freight railroads in the country, starting around 2016, began introducing precision-scheduled railroading. 

The goal of PSR is to make operations more efficient, often by cutting expenses and running fewer trains on tighter schedules. Trains also tend to be longer and heavier as part of efforts to get as much cargo heading in the same direction as possible. 

Not all railroads ended up carrying less cargo over time, but they said changes often helped them make better use of equipment.

Annual carloads carried by Class 1 railroads, in millions

2015

BNSF

2022

Union Pacific

Norfolk Southern

CSX

Canadian National

Canadian Pacific

Kansas City Southern

0

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

Carloads carried by Class 1 railroads, in millions

2015

BNSF

2022

Union

Pacific

Norfolk

Southern

CSX

Canadian

National

Canadian

Pacific

Kansas City

Southern

0

2

4

6

8

10

Carloads carried by Class 1 railroads, millions

2015

BNSF

2022

Union

Pacific

Norfolk

Southern

CSX

Canadian

National

Canadian

Pacific

Kansas City

Southern

0

2

4

6

8

10

Source: the companies

As a result, the railroads were able to cut the number of miles traveled.

Main line train miles, percentage change since 2000

Norfolk Southern

Other major railroads

40%

20

0

-20

-40

-60

2000

'05

'10

'15

'20

Norfolk Southern

Other major railroads

40%

20

0

-20

-40

-60

2000

'05

'10

'15

'20

Norfolk Southern

Other major railroads

40%

20

0

-20

-40

-60

2000

'05

'10

'15

'20

 
 
Source: WSJ analysis of Transportation Department data

Despite fewer miles being traveled, the rate of derailments has increased in five of the last seven years. The derailment rate among the seven Class I railroads is also higher than it was a decade ago.

Norfolk Southern’s rate of derailments has been higher than the average among Class I railroads for the last five years. The company said that it had lower derailment rates than the Class I average until about 2014 and that it has been consistent with the industry since then.

Average annual derailments per million train miles

1.25

1.00

0.75

Norfolk Southern

0.50

Big seven

railroads

0.25

0

2000

’05

’10

’15

’20

Average annual derailments per million train miles

1.25

1.00

0.75

Norfolk Southern

0.50

0.25

Big seven railroads

0

2000

’05

’10

’15

’20

Average derailments per million train miles

1.25

1.00

Norfolk

Southern

0.75

0.50

0.25

Big seven

railroads

0

2000

’05

’10

’15

’20

Notes: Derailments for main track; miles based on total track minus yard-switching miles

Source: U.S. Transportation Department

Norfolk Southern has also had sharply higher costs than its peers in terms of the damage resulting from derailments in recent years. 

The company said that fewer than 5% of its accidents have cost more than $1 million since at least 2000.

Damage costs in derailments, percentage change since 2000

Norfolk Southern

Other major railroads

400%

300

200

100

0

-100

2000

'05

'10

'15

'20

Norfolk Southern

Other major railroads

400%

300

200

100

0

-100

2000

'05

'10

'15

'20

Norfolk Southern

Other major railroads

400%

300

200

100

0

-100

2000

'05

'10

'15

'20

Note: Train derailments on main lines only.
Source: WSJ analysis of Transportation Department data

Write to Ming Li at ming.li@wsj.com, Josh Ulick at josh.ulick@wsj.com and Esther Fung at esther.fung@wsj.com

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