Travel by rail has long been a transportation option in the United States, but use of trains has not been widespread. For most of the past century, the automobile has been king, largely thanks to an impressive highway system and the cost effectiveness of mass production.
Here in California, light rail trains have come into greater use in major cities. And nationwide, train travel seems to be on the rise. Unfortunately, the increase in train ridership has been accompanied by an increase in serious train accidents. These include accidents at railroad crossings and accidents involving train derailment.
One of the largest accidents in recent history was the derailment of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia in May. In that accident, a train traveling at more than twice the safe speed limit derailed when going around a curve in the tracks. Eight people were killed and more than 200 suffered injuries. Many of those injuries were severe, and some victims have already incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills. Approximately two dozen lawsuits have so far been filed against Amtrak.
Sadly, there is a problem that could leave victims with unpaid medical bills and other costs, even after being compensated. In the late 1990s, when Congress reauthorized Amtrak, legislators put a cap on the company’s liability for any single accident. The cap of $200 million was meant to ensure that railroad companies were not forced out of operation by major lawsuits.
If the cap stays in place, the more than 208 victims and their families will have to share that fixed amount of money. It may seem like a large amount, but it will likely be insufficient to adequately cover all medical bills and other costs victims incurred related to the accident. Instead of compensating each victim/family the full amount that they need and deserve, judges may be forced to prioritize some victims over others based on the limitations of an arbitrary damage cap.
There’s a possibility that the cap could be raised to $295 million because of a provision in the most recent bill to finance the Highway Trust Fund. But even if it passes, the higher cap will still likely be too small to fully compensate victims.
It’s unclear exactly how the Amtrak cases will play out. But as America continues to expand its investment in rail travel (including California’s plans for high-speed rail), train accident liability is an issue that will only become more pressing.