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My transit system (Tri-Met, metro Portland, Oregon) has the Portland & Western R. R. (more)3 run self propelled commuter coaches (diesel multiple units, DMU) on a freight line; sometimes solo, sometimes with an unpowered control car coupled to the car with the power pack. The car with the power pack is forward half the time, aft half the time. Is it safer to be in the powered coach in the event of derailment or collision? In which part of that coach? This is different from other question about safety, because they addressed exclusively unpowered coaches; in this situation, we have one car with extra mass (which might help) vs diesel fuel and an attendant fire risk.

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    It would depend on the nature of the collision. So the answer would also depend on the frequency of collisions of various types. This in turn would depend on what other kinds of trains operate on the system, and on other factors specific to the system. Are you looking for a general answer or one that applies to the Tri-Met system? – phoog Nov 5 '18 at 15:06
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    If one of these trains is in a collision, you're going to know it regardless of which car you're in. The "safest" spot is going to be farthest from the collision, of course. But that won't necessarily keep you out of the hospital. – Michael Hampton Nov 5 '18 at 15:47
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    For future reference, the correct term to describe the type of train is "diesel multiple unit" or DMU. – user71659 Nov 5 '18 at 19:07
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    @Gnubie True, but this is a quite different sort of train than the light rail train operated in Portland, Oregon, which has only two cars. – Michael Hampton Nov 6 '18 at 2:24
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    The route in question is not light rail, but is a mixed (freight and passenger) line using equipment approved by the FRA for use in mixed traffic. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WES_Commuter_Rail – Randall Nov 6 '18 at 13:19
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It's pretty small marginals we're talking about (trains hardly ever crash in the first place), but I don't think the type of car matters as much as where in the train.

Most collisions involve the front end of at least one train -- and most derailments involve something going wrong with the first bogie, since that will meet hazards on the track first. So for a two-car train the rear car will be relatively less likely to be directly involved in an accident.

(Diesel fuel is pretty hard to ignite; I've never heard of a train accident where a fuel fire was a determining factor).

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    Agreed - getting Diesel to burn takes quite a lot of effort, either heating it beforehand or compressing it - neither of which are likely to happen in a typical train accident. It's also worth pointing out that train crashes are incredibly rare - for example here in the UK it has been over 10 years since a train passenger was killed in a crash. – Nick C Nov 5 '18 at 16:36
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    @phoog: Such accidents involve at least as many train fronts as they involve train backs, so they cannot cancel out an imbalance from other kinds of accident, no matter how many there are of each kind. – Henning Makholm Nov 5 '18 at 17:27
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    Fuel fires have caused fatalities in multiple accidents. Example: Ladbroke Grove, Glendale, Shields Junction – user71659 Nov 5 '18 at 19:06
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    Just to clarify one point: in most reported cases in which one train collides with the rear of another, the collision occurs because the front train is stationary. The other comments here seem to be implying that collisions in this category have low-impact speeds, because both trains are in motion, but usually that isn't the case, hence the rear carriages are at equal risk with the front carriages. We were taught in school that the safest part of a train is the centre coach. Bad news if you're in a two-coach train! – Ed999 Nov 6 '18 at 1:33
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    @Ed999: I'm not sure where you see such an implication in the comments. But in general a rear-ending accident will involve lower relative speeds than a frontal collision, exactly because one of the trains is generally stationary. In a frontal collision with both trains in motion, the relative speed is (to a first approximation) twice as high. – Henning Makholm Nov 6 '18 at 1:56
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I'll second sitting towards the rear as mentioned in the excellent answer by Henning Makholm (train crashes in the US, as far as I know, are most usually collisions between trains and things that aren't trains that have no business being in the track (eg at level ("grade") crossings); or derailments, both of which are going to affect the front of the train more than the rear).

But I also wanted to add that if your system has seats facing in both directions (I know many American systems have seats all facing the same direction and complicated methods of turning the train or flipping the seats around), it's also much more survivable to sit with your back facing the direction of travel. If you hit something you will be thrown into your seat, rather than across the train and into various, much less soft, obstacles or (worse) out of a broken window or door.

In most countries though I wouldn't bother with such things. Rail accidents are rare and if it means ruining your enjoyment of the journey by sitting in a more crowded part of the train or in a seat you don't like (even if it's safer), I'd much prefer to just take the minuscule risk.

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    @Mehrdad, far less frequently. A quick look at British railway accident reports from the past four years shows 22 cases of trains derailing or striking non-train objects, versus two cases of a train striking another train. – Mark Nov 5 '18 at 22:32
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    @Ed999 It would make planes safer but not enough to make it worth while. aviation.stackexchange.com/questions/11476/… – Ross Ridge Nov 6 '18 at 2:08
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    @Harper In England it is very common, on the East Coast Main Line, for passengers to be sat facing each other. At least half the seats in each carriage have this arrangement. I think it is probably to allow parents travelling with young children to supervise them properly, but it also provides for better leg room for commuters than the alternative 'airline cabin' arrangement. In a derailment, there is no gradual loss of speed on impact, and the safety systems you describe would not be effective. – Ed999 Nov 6 '18 at 4:14
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    I was referring to a derailment. A common misconception of accidents is that the moment of the first event, everything stops. This mentality leads Americans to not wear seat belts. Outside of hitting a bridge abutment, there's very little that'll stop a derailed train car from careening where it pleases. It doesn't stop, it may not even drag to a stop as fast as it can brake. – Harper Nov 6 '18 at 4:34
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    @Harper "A common misconception of accidents" +100! People (Americans, at least) seem to have an abysmal understanding of the physics of 500,000 tons of moving metal. My step-dad worked for the Union Pacific and said that within 5 years of starting, almost every engineer had killed someone trying to beat a train to the crossing. Very sad. – FreeMan Nov 6 '18 at 13:10
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My first instinct was to go with "sit in the back" as the two (current) answers advise. However, since they're already here, I'll add a counter point that sometimes there is a collision between two trains that are on the same block of track when they shouldn't be.

Being in the back of train would be the best-bet if you're in the train doing the rear-ending, however, being in the front of the train if you in the one being rear-ended is going to be your best bet.

i.e. There's not much you can do to protect yourself in a train accident. Much like commercial aircraft operations, the odds of being in an accident in the first place are pretty darn small. The best you can do is not stress over something that has an incredibly small chance of happening.

NOTE: Advice does not apply if the operator has an unacceptably high accident rate. In that case, take the bus.

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    +1 for the note. I suspect that the bus may have a higher accident rate than the train, but kudos anyway for breaking outside of the box. It's easy to forget that. – AaronD Nov 6 '18 at 0:00
  • Although true, I'd think (but would have to check) that if sitting in one of the coaches that has "first contact", that it would be more survivable to get rear-ended than doing the rear-ending. In other words, sitting in the rear of the train and getting rear-ended doesn't seem as bad as sitting in the front of the train and doing the rear-ending. – SQB Nov 6 '18 at 11:44
  • Tri-Met trimet.org/wes/index.htm does not operate this train; it's operated by the Portland & Western gwrr.com/railroads/north_america/… for Tri-Met, and it's P&W's right-of-way. – K7AAY Nov 6 '18 at 18:23
  • @K7AAY - close enough... :) – FreeMan Nov 6 '18 at 18:35
  • Maybe it makes a difference if the commuter train crew knows a little more about what the freight crews are doing, since they're on the same payroll? Maybe? – K7AAY Nov 6 '18 at 18:37

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