An Amtrak train that derailed on an overpass Monday near Tacoma, Wash., killing multiple people, has revived the question: why don’t trains have seatbelts?
Images showed at least two train cars falling onto Interstate 5 with one still hanging from a bridge near Dupont, southwest of Seattle.
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The Amtrak train was making the first-ever run along a new route before the crash and the derailment remains under investigation.
Steven R. Ditmeyer, a former director of research and research development at the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration, said one of the main reasons trains do not have seat belts is simple: passengers don’t want to wear them.
“It’s a long story on which there are no good answers. They have been considered for many years,” Ditmeyer told Global News. “Nowhere in the world are seatbelts used on trains. People want to ride the train to have the flexibility to get up and walk around and so on. The train crew members don’t want to be in the position of having to enforce the seatbelts.”
A 2006 research paper from the Transit Cooperative Research Program examined rail-safety in the U.S. and found that as passengers were unlikely to use the belts, this could potentially increase the number of injuries in a crash, as the passengers who weren’t wearing seat belts could fly forward and collide with those who are buckled in.
“Secondary impact velocities must be limited to minimize injuries to the crew and passengers as they are thrown from their seats during a collision,” the report said. “Minimizing body decelerations for passengers seems to be the most difficult aspect of improving on the current ability to limit injury during collisions. Seat belts do not seem to be practical.”
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In cars for example, seatbelts are effective as the biggest risk of death or injury is extreme deceleration like when a car hits a tree. Unrestrained objects will continue to move forward at a high rate of speed. This rarely happens with a train crash, according to experts.
On an airplane seatbelts are used during three main events: at takeoff, during landing and when turbulence occurs.
“Pulling into a station is not high risk and leaving a station is not high risk. It’s sort of the opposite of an airplane,” Ditmeyer said adding it would be difficult for crews to constantly monitor people for seatbelts.
A 2007 study by Britain’s Rail Safety and Standards Board concluded against outfitting train seats with seat belts, saying it wouldn’t necessarily reduce the number of serious injuries.
The five-year study analyzed six major rail accidents and looked at using either a lap belt or a “Lap and Diagonal” belt known as a three point belt.
“Injury outcomes for passengers choosing to wear restraints were substantially improved. However, there was a slight general worsening of injury outcomes for passengers choosing not to wear restraints as they impacted the modified (stiffened) seat,” the report said.
The report showed that a total of 14 passengers died in three crashes in the U.K. from what is called structural intrusion – a loss of survivable space. If riders had been wearing seatbelts that locked them into place, computer modelling showed 88 passengers could have died.
Researchers also found that risk of neck injury increased dramatically with smaller riders.
“Neck injury in this group significantly increased to a level outside acceptable limits,” the report said. “It may be possible to reduce this feature if a new seat were designed which took account of this problem, however the difficulties and implications that this represents should not be underestimated.”
While details are still emerging from the incident, Ditmeyer said there are other ways to improve rail safety which include making investments to improve broken or defective tracks and the implementation of Positive Train Control, which slows speeding trains and enforces speed restrictions.
“The whole challenge is keeping trains from going too fast around curves,” Ditmeyer said noting that speed was a factor in the 2015 Amtrak crash in Philadelphia that killed eight people. “The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the engineer just simply lost track of where he was.”
“He thought he was further along his route than he really was and so he accelerated, but too soon,” Ditmeye said. “Positive train control would have prevented that.”