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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
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Despite crash, train still best way to NYC

By Sara Foss
Tuesday, December 3, 2013

I’ve taken the Metro-North train from Poughkeepsie to Manhattan before.

I’m sure many of you have, too.

For years, I resisted taking the train.

Having grown up in New Hampshire, I was accustomed to driving everywhere, and saw little reason to stop. Driving allowed me to come and go as I pleased, and to listen to music as loudly as I wanted to, and to avoid being around other people. And I liked driving. I found it relaxing.

But there’s nothing relaxing about driving to New York City, and after one particularly stressful trip, I decided to take the Metro-North from Tarrytown. I liked it so much that I began taking the train from Poughkeepsie, just to spend more time on it. The train was even more relaxing than driving. I could read, or nap, or daydream.

Sunday’s Metro-North crash was the rare tragic event where it was all too easy to imagine myself, or someone I know, being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But that doesn’t mean I’ll avoid riding Metro-North in the future.

The crash, which killed four and injured 60, is the only accident resulting in passenger deaths in Metro-North’s 30-year history.

And train-related fatalities are pretty rare.

According to a recent study in the journal Research in Transportation Economics, railroads claim an average of 876 lives a year, and the majority of these deaths occur when a train collides with a vehicle or pedestrian. On average, only seven passengers traveling on trains die each year.

Far more common are fatal vehicle accidents.

Last year, 34,080 people died in motor-vehicle accidents, a 5.3 percent increase over 2011’s total, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. These figures suggest that it’s probably in our best interest to take advantage of alternative modes of transportation as often as possible.

Of course, many of us live in places that offer few options.

On my drive back from Maine on Sunday, I spent about two hours trapped in post-Thanksgiving traffic, inching along at between 2 and 10 miles per hour on the Mass Pike. This traffic seemed to come from nowhere — for the first couple hours of my drive, I zipped along, cruising through Boston and the suburbs without any trouble. But then I got to Worcester and the traffic came to a near-standstill.

For the longest time, I tried to figure out what was causing the slowdown. Was there an accident? A lane closure? Nope. There were just too many cars on the road. And I found myself fervently wishing that I was not among them.

But would I have been happier traveling on Amtrak or a Greyhound bus? It’s doubtful.
On a bus I would have been stuck in the same traffic jam I was already in, and the Amtrak route to Portland, Maine, would send me through New York City. So while I might like the idea of public transportation, and I might understand that it’s safer and better for the environment than driving, I seldom view it as a viable option.

In fact, the Metro-North is one of the few forms of mass transit that I do consider viable. It’s easy and relatively cheap, and a genuinely pleasant experience. Sunday’s crash will probably make passengers ask more questions about the overall safety of Metro-North trains — and rightly so.

Because 2013 hasn’t been an especially good year for Metro-North.

According to The Associated Press, “Through August, the railroad had six train accidents, matching last year’s total.” One of the biggest accidents occurred in May when two Metro-North trains collided in Connecticut, injuring more than 70. In November, Metro-North chief engineer Robert Puciloski told members of the National Transportation Safety Board that the railroad is “behind in several areas” of maintenance.

A lack of maintenance does not appear to be the culprit in Sunday’s derailment.

On Monday, an NTSB official told reporters that the train was traveling 82 miles per hour on the curve where the derailment happened, a curve where the speed limit is 30 miles per hour. Some passengers, upon hearing this, might ask themselves whether they really want to continue traveling to New York by train. After all, driving to the city might be unpleasant, but it doesn’t require entrusting a total stranger with the task of getting you from point A to point B.

Myself, I don’t have any plans to stop taking the Metro-North.

I still fly, despite occasional reports of plane crashes. (Statistically, commercial aviation remains the safest mode of transportation.) Over the weekend, I participated in my road race, despite the fact that a lunatic bombed the Boston Marathon in April. I still live in my neighborhood, although occasionally a violent crime occurs there.

And I still drive, which is one of the most dangerous things you can do.

Sara Foss, a Gazette columnist, can be reached at sfoss@dailygazette.net. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

 
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