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Why don't Amtrak trains have seat belts?

Atomic Taco/Flickr

After an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia, killing at least 7 and injuring 200, many people started wondering: Why don't trains have seat belts?

Some experts even raised the issue. "This has long been a concern," said Deborah Hersman, former head of the National Transportation Safety Board, in an appearance on Fox & Friends. "When you look at the environment on trains, they aren't required to restrain passengers, luggage."

It's a fair question. Cars have seat belts. Planes have seat belts. Most passenger trains don't. Should they?

Why some train experts don't think seat belts would help

(<a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/masstravel/9065546175/in/photolist-eP6i3g-9Jot57-c5h5w7-9sCPw9-a2PefL-4CdJG-c5h5us-4zVMY-6wU8tY-9szPrg-nADrV4-2r1mc-2PUWbp-9t7Vix-8XomZ9-pZDuVq-aapQ86-q73tpZ-9YWffq-apeuiY-5Dc49Z-amWJwa-c5h5xq-bYfj4o-bYfjpf-8rg647-4YHsLT-ccwrTU-ccwrWy-ccwsiN-4iLYF-9YTm7r-nWjvTc-nWjuhX-nWju1z-aTq6gR-9YWfvC-9YTnC4-6mQjG8-6mUukU-6mQkHX-7PjGiv-9us3Nf-fPQX3d-8ztha7-86Se33-8jU6ka-2r1kR-obEhVK-6XbYeh">Massachusetts Office of Travel/Flickr</a>)

(Massachusetts Office of Travel/Flickr)

Seat belts cost a fair bit of money to install, so they're only worthwhile if they'd actually save lives or prevent injuries.

And, interestingly, some experts don't seem to think seat belts would actually be effective at protecting passengers. This paper from the Transit Cooperative Research Program summarizes a 2006 survey into rail-safety issues in the United States. "Seat belts do not seem to be practical," it concludes.

Why is that? In part, the experts found, because many passengers were unlikely to use the belts, which could actually make things worse. In a crash, the passengers who weren't wearing seat belts could fly forward and collide with those who were — potentially compounding the number of injuries.

Similarly, a major five-year study published by Britain's Rail Safety & Standards Board in 2007 came out against putting seat belts on passenger trains — for a few different reasons.

First, the study found that simple lap belts could prove more dangerous than nothing at all: when they were tried with crash-test dummies, the dummies could rotate with enough force during collisions to cause serious neck injuries.

Three-point belts were better at keeping people in their seats, but they also presented a hard choice for train designers. For these seat belts to work, the seats themselves had to be rigid enough to anchor them. Yet that increased the risk of injury for unrestrained passengers.

So seat belts don't seem to bolster safety unless everyone is wearing them. And that's considered impractical.

To see why, consider the contrast with airplanes. Everyone has to wear seat belts on planes, but that's confined to takeoff and landing and periods of heavy turbulence. (Arguably, seat belts in planes are most useful for preventing people from getting hurt during turbulence.) Those are discrete, somewhat predictable events.

Trains, by contrast, don't have takeoff or landing periods, and they don't have turbulence. And it would be a tough sell to get everyone to wear seat belts all the time. Most people like getting up and stretching or walking to the dining car. It's one of the appeals of passenger trains.

Seat belts aren't the only way to improve train safety

Investigators and first responders work near the wreckage of Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188, from Washington to New York, that derailed yesterday May 13, 2015 in north Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At least six people were killed and more than 200 others were injured in the crash. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Investigators and first responders work near the wreckage of Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188, from Washington to New York, that derailed yesterday May 13, 2015 in north Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Now, there's a key caveat here: We still don't know all the details of the Amtrak crash in Philadelphia — so there may be some new twist not covered by the seat belt studies above.

It could turn out that the people most severely injured in the Amtrak crash were standing up (in, say, the dining car). In that case, seat belts probably wouldn't have helped. Or it may turn out that seat belts really would have stopped people from being thrown about and reduced injuries meaningfully. If so, we'll no doubt hear more calls to require them on trains.

But seat belts also aren't the only way to improve rail safety. Amtrak still hasn't installed Positive Train Control on all of its tracks — including those around Philadelphia. That system is designed to prevent collisions, slow speeding trains, and enforce speed restrictions. (It's still not certain whether that system would have prevented this particular crash, but it's one place to look.)

Meanwhile, a large number of train derailments in the United States are caused by broken or defective tracks. So that's another area to consider:

train accidents by casue

(Javier Zarracina/Vox)

Granted, some safety regulations may end up being overly expensive or not worth the cost. The Federal Railroad Administration, for instance, has long required all US passenger trains to be heavy enough to withstand a collision with a freight train (a relatively rare event). Those rules are one reason US passenger trains have historically been heavier, slower, and more expensive than their European and Japanese counterparts.

Even so, reducing train fatalities is certainly possible. The Shinkansen bullet train in Japan has carried nearly 10 billion passengers over 50 years — a number Amtrak could only dream of — with exactly zero passenger fatalities from derailment or collision. Many Shinkansen trains don't have seat belts, either. But then again, they don't seem to need them.

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