3 June 1998
For years, high speed rail proponents have pointed, with justification, to an impressive safety record --- one fatality in over 30 years of operation. Seven years ago yesterday, Germany inaugurated its Intercity Express (ICE) high speed rail service. Today's German ICE high speed rail crash north of Hanover radically changes that record. Certainly, German high speed rail is no longer comparatively safe and it is likely that this accident alone skewed the European high speed rail fatality rate to above that of US domestic airlines.
From 1990 to 1995, US domestic airlines carried 2,200,000,000,000 passenger miles, with 530 fatalities, for a fatality rate of 0.024 per 100,000,000 passenger miles.
It is not known what percentage of passenger miles ICE high speed rail trains carry relative to the entire German rail system. If they represent 15 percent --- considered to be an overly generous estimate --- then the ICE fatality rate over the past seven years would be approximately 0.250 --- more than 10 times that of the US airline industry and nearly double that of Amtrak (at 0.139 for 1990 to 1995). On this assumption, it would require nearly 100 years of fatality free operation to reduce the German high speed rail fatality rate to the US airline level. (1)
To give some perspective to how significant such a catastrophic accident can impact high speed rail fatality rates, if the same accident had occurred on the French TGV system, its fatality rate for the first 15 years would have been approximately 0.090 --- more than three times that of the US domestic airline industry.(2) Given the preponderance of French high speed rail service in relation to that of other European nations, it is likely that high speed rail's aggregate European fatality rate from inception to the present is considerably above that of the US domestic airline industry. One catastrophic accident has such an enormous impact because of the comparatively small volume of passenger traffic carried by high speed rail.
1. If today's ICE crash had by itself accounted for all of the fatalities on the German rail system over the past seven years, the fatality rate for the entire German rail system would have been 0.038 --- 1.5 times that of the US airline industry. But the ICE crash does not represent all of the fatalities, and most German rail service is not ICE high speed rail service.
2. According to Florida Overland Express, the French TGV system carried 360 million passengers during its first 15 years (1981-1995). Assumes that each passenger rode 300 miles (an optimistic assumption).
WENDELL COX CONSULTANCY
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