For the third time in nine months, a major subway or commuter rail crash has occurred in a big US city. Until last September, US rail systems _ much like their airline counterparts _ were cruising with far fewer accidents than in previous years and decades. The number of train accidents per mile dropped nearly 30 per cent from 1990 to 2008, according to Federal Railroad Administration records.
That changed in a hurry.
In September 2008, a commuter rail train crashed with a freight rail in Los Angeles and 25 people died. The crash was blamed on an engineer on the commuter rail train texting on a cell phone. Last month about 50 people were injured in Boston when a trolley rear-ended another trolley. The conductor admitted to texting when the crash took place.
On Monday, one subway train rear-ended another in Washington during rush hour above ground. At least six people were killed, the mayor said, including the operator of the trailing train. It's too early to know the cause of this accident, but this third collision has got a top safety expert concerned.
"I'm not sure if everyone in the safety system is paying the proper attention that needs to be paid," said Barry Sweedler, a San Francisco-based safety consultant and former investigator and manager at the National Transportation Safety Board. "These things shouldn't be happening."
Sweedler worries that something is going on.
The Los Angeles accident was "a watershed event; there hadn't been anything like that in 30 years," Sweedler said. Rails had been extraordinarily safe for years on end. In 1990, the US averaged 4.7 accidents for every million rail miles. That dropped to 3.2 accidents in 2008.
Then the Boston and Washington events followed. He said he can't speak about Washington's crash, but there is a pattern that may be emerging.
"People become complacent," Sweedler said. And during a recession, rail systems have less money and often tend to cut back on safety, he added.
Sweedler said the uptick could be a combination of chance, complacency, spending cuts and "less enforcement over the past decade" by the federal government on safety standards. But Robert Lauby, a former NTSB rail investigator, said history shows that these things tend to happen in groupings by mere coincidence.
"Just because you had them doesn't mean there's a specific (single) issue that caused them," Lauby said.
The Washington area and especially the area's subway system has had many problems before, but usually they haven't been fatal. The last subway fatal accident for passengers was in 1982, when two trains derailed, one hit a tunnel support and three people died. The same time a plane crash in Washington dominated headlines. Four different subway employees were killed when struck by railcars in three incidents in 2005 and 2006. In 1996, a train operator was killed when a train failed to come to a stop.
A 2004 accident could have killed at least 79 people had an empty train been full, safety officials. That train, which was out of service, rolled backward and hit another train.
"They've had their difficulties over the years," Sweedler said of Washington's subway system, called Metro.
In 1996, one of the biggest commuter rail accidents until Los Angeles occurred just outside of Washington when a Maryland commuter rail and an Amtrak train collided, killing 11 people. Other times railroads have large fatal accidents when cars or trucks get stuck on tracks, such as 2005's crash in Glendale, California, when an sport utility vehicle on the tracks caused a crash that killed 10 people.
Freight rail operators were quick to note that they are different than subways and commuter rails and that the Metro accident was not on rails they run on.
Patti Reilly, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Railroads, said 2008 was the safest year on record for freight railways.