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This morning I had to make a small (2-3 hours) train journey with a friend. He is a little anxious and unreasonable, and doesn't trust public transport. He won't fly at all and normally, he doesn't take the train, because he says it is too dangerous. Normally, he only trusts himself when he is the driver of his car. But today it was necessary to take the train.

During the journey, we had a discussion about the safest place in a train. I'm convinced that the safest places are in the back of the train, since normally, if a train has an accident, it either hits something head-on or the engine derails. So I assume that the impact is lower in the back of the train.

My friend argues that the places at the front of the train are safer. He has various reasons for that:

  1. In case of emergency it is more probable that the electronic is working in front of the train. Therefore it is easier to open doors and get out of the train. He compares that with seats on a place directly around a emergency exit.
  2. The driver of a vehicle always protects his side unconsciously. I can follow this argument in case of a car, but how should it work in a train?
  3. Cars at the end of a train have a higher chance to derail.

So I'm not sure who is right. Are there any statistics about safest places in a train? I know that such things exists for planes, but how is it in trains? I would really like to persuade my friend, so that we can travel more together by train.

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I'm pretty sure trains emergency exits have non-powered overrides or backup power that kicks in regardless of what else happens to the train. Surely they can't overlook anything THAT obvious for safety reasons. I've been on British trains where electricity is switched off on tracks but there's backup power in each coach and the guards confirmed that emergency exits can still be used. –  Ankur Banerjee Feb 21 '12 at 9:46
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Also, no matter how safe a driver your friend thinks he is, he's still driving on the same roads as all sorts of drunken idiots that can easily kill him -- and that's why trains are much, much safer than cars. See the handy chart here: allianz-pro-schiene.de/eng/press/press-releases/2010/… –  jpatokal Feb 21 '12 at 10:19
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The first thing your friend needs to learn is that trains are MASSIVELY safter than going by car, at least ten times safer. But he's probably heard that and doesn't care because he feels in control when driving a car. So his fears are utterly irrational, and arguing is probably not going to help. –  Michael Borgwardt Feb 21 '12 at 10:20
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Your friend doesn't need to know where the safest part of the train is, he just needs to believe he has taken steps to protect himself. It's all in his head. Work there. –  Jay Bazuzi Feb 21 '12 at 17:26
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I would like to point out the obvious that nearly any place on a train is likely safer than being behind the wheel of a car. –  Caleb Jul 25 '13 at 8:33
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5 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

I believe that the back of the train is the safest part as well. Probably not the last carriage as it is also susceptible to crashes from the rear, although not as common as head-on collisions.

Having that in mind, one could say that the safest part is, in fact, the middle but in a case of locomotive (collision with) derailment (which is more common than the derailment of other train parts), the middle is exposed and vulnerable to an additional crash provided that another train (although unlikely) crashes into this already derailed one.

I agree with Ankur that there is back-up power that is used for opening the doors in case of the accident. But it's usually the crash that is the most dangerous moment and not the inability to get out. On older trains (non-AC usually), the doors are mechanical so there's no need for electricity whatsoever when you try to open them; you just pull the red lever and the mechanism releases the doors (if they're still functional, of course).

The last carriage is definitely safer shock-wise as there are not that many crashes where one train would back into another train. The other scenario is that "your" train is halted and another trains hits it from the back but I don't know of many accidents that played out this way. You should notice that sometimes there is a locomotive after the last carriage as well so you wouldn't know the direction of the train for the most of the journey if you don't know the route.

To sum up, the safest part would be two thirds or three fourths from the front end of the train if the train is moving forwards. Also, I'm sure that it is generally safer to have rear-facing seat than the front-facing one.

Although it's not answering your question, check out McAleer Law's website about train accident statistics, it's quite interesting.

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Surely the number of rear carriages hit by a train from behind is equal to the number of front carriages that collide with a train in front ? ;) –  Visage Feb 21 '12 at 11:04
    
Agreed but I was thinking of a scenario where a train is in a collision with a train going from the opposite direction, which is a more severe collision with a greater energy than the one where a train hits a stationary object, right? –  John Doe Feb 21 '12 at 11:17
    
No, wait, I'm an idiot. I watched Mythbusters for nothing, they said the same thing, which is wrong - the energy of collision is the same for a moving and stationary object as the energy released between two moving objects. –  John Doe Feb 21 '12 at 11:20
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1) Trains moving in opposite direction collide head on. 2) Moving train collides with stationary train 3) Trains moving in same direction collide head->rear. #1 has more energy that #2, #2 has more energy than #1. Because the relative speed between the trains is greater in #1 than #2 which is greater than #3. –  Jonathan. Feb 21 '12 at 15:22
    
The last carriage is definitely safer shock-wise — the Newton's cradle was my immediate thought about this assertion. –  ulidtko 2 days ago
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I have no answer about which car is the safest, back, front or middle, but I am sure that when a car is choosen, the safest seats are the ones that are turned towards the end of the train.

In case of a crash, the train stops brutally and it is far better to have the back of the seat contain you than to get thrown forwards out of your seat.

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Most rail accidents here (and elsewhere that I'm aware of) involve one train hitting another (slower moving) train front to back, making the back the worst place to be (at least in the train that gets hit :) ).
The safest place then would be right in the center where, whichever you're in (the train that gets hit or the train that starts the collision) you've got the biggest possible crumple zone around you.
Of course there is always the possibility of another train hitting yours right in the middle where you're sitting while your train is running on a malfunctioning switch... Or it runs off an embankment or bridge, pulling the center carriages to crash into a river or lake by sheer momentum.
If you consider everything that can go wrong and assure yourself it will all happen to you, you shouldn't even stay at home as chances of an aircraft or truck crashing into your home are quite real (both happen once in a while), you could even be hit by a meteorite while sleeping in your bed.

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Not in this case: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eschede_train_disaster , The wagons 5 and 6 of 12 total got a 200t bridge dropped on them. –  sum1stolemyname Feb 21 '12 at 11:53
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Ah. Good ol' reductio ad absurdum. –  Ankur Banerjee Feb 21 '12 at 11:57
    
@sum1stolemyname that's just one of the cases where freak accidents happen. Had the train gone 1kmh slower or faster other cars would have been hit... –  jwenting Feb 21 '12 at 12:15
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Mors certam, hora incertam. –  sum1stolemyname Feb 21 '12 at 12:39
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The number of carriages would effect my choice. Second or third from last is my starting point, based on having a crumple zone in front and behind me. Also that there is less weight behind me in the probably more likely event of a head on, as opposed to a rear end shunt. Sit toward the front of the carriage in case you get thrown forwards. Sitting facing back seems safest. See what could come flying toward you in the event of a sudden stop. And wear a crash helmet with a red light on top so you can be found.

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Regardless of whether any of this is undisputed truth, I agree with most except the red light. Just seems a bit much. –  wbogacz Mar 28 '13 at 0:36
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i'm curious again about this question!

Unfortunately a train has derailed in my hometown. You can see the graphics at http://elpais.com/elpais/2013/07/25/media/1374703338_483146.html . It's in spanish but the graphic is understandable.

As you see it looks like a derailment because of excessive speed and no additional trains involved. These kind of derailments are the most common IMHO.

Looking at the graphic, it looks like these kind of accidents will follow this pattern: The front wagons derail, and the middle ones get sandwiched by the back ones, that get severely damaged.

The safest places on the train were all the front ones, despite they were the ones originally involved in the derailment.

The worst part in this case was the back of the train.

I wonder what would have happened if the derailing wagon was the back one, if at all possible (it easily can be compensated by the rest of wagons inertia)

UPDATE There's been much much talk lately about this accident in the media, and they have pointed an interesting fact:

  • As you see in the photos, where the train derailed there is a wall at the side of the railway. As opposed to uninformed opinions (such as mine), looks like this concrete wall has been a lifesaver, as it helped to keep the train more or less together. If the derailment had been in open field, experts say it would have been much worse, because every wagon would have gone at any random direction, multiple-colliding between each other.

So in my opinion, there's not safest place, because the final fate of every wagon depends on many different things.

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