What Are the Most Common Train Accident Scenarios?

Regardless of how a train accident occurs, one thing you can be sure of is that the railroad company is going to fight accepting liability. While many assume that when they are injured, the party who injured them will step up to the plate and offer to pay for their damages, that is seldom how things work in the real world.

While each train accident has its own fact pattern that determines liability, there are general types of train accidents, which raise similar legal questions. The experienced train accident attorneys at Grossman Law Offices would like to take the time go over some of the more common types of train accidents, which result in injuries.


Questions answered on this page:

  • What are examples of common train accident scenarios, which lead to people getting hurt?
  • What legal issues do each of these scenarios raise?
  • How can an experienced train accident attorney help maximize your injury compensation?

Common Types of Train Accidents

The type of train accident generally determines what laws apply to a particular accident, which duties the railroad company owed to the injured person, and ultimately, whether or not it is possible to pursue an injury claim against the railroad.

It is the ability to recognize the difference between different case types and properly apply the correct laws which distinguishes an inexperienced train accident attorney, from one who has successfully pursued many claims on behalf of those injured in train accidents. Some common train accident scenarios include:

When a train hits a car

While many people assume that cars are always at fault when they are struck by trains, this is not actually the case. The reason people probably assume this is that trains always have the right-of-way on the tracks. However, this does not mean that railroad companies do not have duties to minimize potential dangerous encounters with motor vehicles.

The law requires railroad companies, as owners of the tracks, to maintain safe crossings anytime a railroad intersects with a road. This includes a duty to make sure that foliage does not interfere with a motorists sight-lines, rendering them unable to spot a train from a safe distance. Furthermore, if there are guard arms that come down at the crossing, they must be maintained in good working order.

One of the more overlooked duties that railroads owe motorists is when the track is raised above the level of the nearby roadway, that the inclines leading up to the tracks permit drivers clear vision down the tracks. By this we mean that if the inclines are too steep, they can obstruct a driver's view, preventing her from seeing a train until the driver is actually on the tracks. While most of these crossings have been fixed over the last few decades, there are still quite a few around the country.

When a train hits a pedestrian

This is another instance where people wrongly assume that a railroad has no liability. Certainly, pedestrians are always considered trespassers and forbidden from walking on, or near, railroad tracks. However, this does not mean that it is open season on pedestrians.

Engineers still have a duty to take evasive actions such as applying the brakes, if even there is no way that they can stop before colliding with a pedestrian. This gives the pedestrian the largest possible window of time to get off of the tracks before being struck by the train. Sometimes, there is no evidence that the engineer made any attempt to slow down, or even saw the pedestrian in the first place. This can be an honest mistake due to darkness, or a pedestrian darting on to the tracks before the engineer can react. In these cases, the railroad company would likely have no liability. However, if the engineer is asleep, distracted, or just doesn't react, in those instances it is possible that the railroad company has liability.

Children Injured on the Tracks or In the Rail yard

The most common scenario where trains are liable for hitting a pedestrian involves children. When railroads know that children reside in an area near the tracks, they have a duty to erect barriers in order to restrict the children's access. This is because the law recognizes that children do not have the mental faculties of adults, particularly the ability to properly assess danger. If the railroad is aware that there are children playing near a track that has barriers around it, they also have a duty to take steps to chase the children away and get them to play elsewhere. If the children are gaining access to the tracks through a hole in the fencing, the railroads owes a duty to repair the hole.

Another scenario where a railroad could be liable for a child's train accident is in admittedly rare situations where the railroad actually makes the area around the tracks a more desirable place for children to play. This usually occurs when engineers blow the trains horn, wave, or attempt to amuse children as the train passes by. While it may seem like a nice gesture on the part of the engineer, as authority figures, train engineers have a duty to convey the dangers of trains to impressionable children.

The Engineer Forgot to Sound the Horn

This may seem like a strange reason that the railroad could face liability, but many state including Texas have passed laws requiring trains to blow their horn if someone is on the tracks who should not be. Since it is acknowledged that trains physically cannot stop in time to avoid most accidents, blowing their horn serves to give notice to those in harms way that they need to move out of the way.

While it seems like a fairly simple safety measure, many people would be surprised at the number of times people, who otherwise could have safely removed themselves from the railroad track, end up getting hit simply because an engineer forgot to blow the horn.

Train Derailment

One of the more common scenarios where a railroad generally has liability is when the train derails. Theses accidents usually occur for a few specific reasons.

  • A traffic control mechanism is in a state of disrepair, which can lead to two trains colliding on the track. Since railroad companies are responsible for maintaining traffic signals, the company who left the control signal inoperable could have liability for ensuing accidents.
  • Engineers ignoring control signals. It may seem strange to think that an engineer would ignore a control signal, since most likely it means the track will be occupied by another train, but it happens more than most people would think. Whether deliberate or through carelessness, an engineer ignoring a traffic signal is just the same as when a driver ignores a traffic signal on a highway, they assume liability for ensuing injuries.
  • The tracks were in a state of disrepair. Railroads are responsible for maintaining hundreds of thousands of miles of track throughout the country. It only takes one bad stretch of rails to trigger a derailment.
  • When the train is traveling faster than the speed limit for a given stretch of track. It might surprise some people to learn that, just like cars, trains also have speed limits. That is because, just like roadways for cars, train tracks are only designed for trains to travel along them at certain speeds. When those speed limits are exceeded, it greatly increases the risk of a derailment. Since it is the engineer who determines how quickly the train is traveling, if the train is speeding and injures someone there is potential liability for the railroad, be it motorists hit by the derailed train, pedestrians, or other members of the trains crew.

When a Vehicle Gets Stuck on the Tracks

The most common cause of this scenario is that the car suffers a mechanical issue and has the misfortune of getting stuck on the tracks. Sadly, because of how commonplace this scenario is, investigators often overlook other factors that may have contributed to the accident.

However, just because a vehicle gets stuck on the track, it doesn't mean it's open season on whomever happens to have the misfortune of having their vehicle break down at the worst possible time. The engineer has to make a good faith effort to slow the train to the best of his abilities in order to avoid a collision. While most engineers fulfill this duty, there are times when for whatever reason, the engineer makes no effort to slow down at all. The crucial seconds that the engineer can buy for someone stranded on the tracks is quite often, literally the difference between life and death. When the engineer fails to do what they can, the railroad can have liability, even though the car should not have been on the tracks in the first place.

In some instances it is a defect, such as a pothole or other defect with the crossing that strands the car on the tracks. Since they railroad is responsible for maintaining the crossing, a responsibility many railroad companies carry out on the cheap, if their poor maintenance is what caused the vehicle to get stuck on the tracks, they could bear liability for any ensuing accidents

Accidents Caused by Distracted Engineers

Want a scary thought? We have all seen folks driving down the road, texting or watching movies on their cell phones. While such drivers can be deadly in their own right, now imagine the engineer of a train that weights thousands of tons who is doing the same thing. While there is certainly less traffic on a rail line, it does not make texting while one is supposed to be operating a vehicle any less dangerous.

If the engineer's distraction leads to an accident, then in all likelihood some liability will rest with the railroad.

Perhaps the most surprising part of any accident that involves someone being distracted by a cell phone is that the people on the cell phone fail to realize just how easy it is to prove that someone was using a cell phone at the time of an accident. Experienced train accident attorneys know that it only takes a subpoena to obtain cell phone records, that come with their own time stamp. Put most simply, if someone is using a cell phone at the time of an accident, it is very easy to prove.

Why an experienced train accident attorney matters

Given all of the variables and scenarios that are potentially involved in a train accident, it is crucial to have an experienced train accident attorney on your side. The complexities of train accident law tend to stack the deck in favor of the railroad companies. This can give them an aura of invincibility. However, when you have been injured in a train accident railroad companies are not unbeatable if you have someone on your side who knows the law and has been holding railroads responsible for their negligence, for the last 25 years, like the attorneys at Grossman Law Offices.

If you have been injured in a train accident, don't wait and hope that a railroad company offers you money for your injuries. Call Grossman Law Offices for a free consultation at (855) 326-0000. The call is toll-free and we answer the phone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.


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