An Empirical analysis of freight train derailment rates for unit trains and manifest trains

Zhipeng Zhang, Chen Yu Lin, Xiang Liu, Zheyong Bian, C. Tyler Dick, Jiaxi Zhao, Steven Kirkpatrick

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Rail is a safe and efficient mode of transporting hazardous materials (hazmat). In the past decade, the hazmat traffic transported by unit trains has significantly increased in the United States. As a result, a comprehensive understanding of the safety and risk of hazmat unit trains is important and can contribute to the identification, evaluation, and implementation of risk mitigation strategies. Limited prior research has focused on unit train derailment risk analysis. This paper develops a quantitative analysis of freight unit train derailment characteristics and compares those statistics to non-unit, manifest trains (mixed trains). Mainline freight train derailment data on Class I railroads between 1996 and 2018 were analyzed for hazmat unit trains, non-hazmat unit trains, and manifest trains. Derailment rates, measured by three traffic exposure metrics (train-miles, ton-miles, and car-miles) were estimated and compared. The analyses showed that a unit train has a 30% lower derailment rate in terms of ton-miles and car-miles than manifest trains, while the derailment rate per million train-miles of unit trains is slightly greater than that of manifest trains. Loaded unit trains have roughly four-fold higher derailment rate in terms of train-miles and car-miles than that of empty unit trains. Within loaded unit trains, hazmat unit trains have lower derailment rates than non-hazmat unit trains. Overall, heavier and shorter loaded unit trains tend to have greater derailment rates in terms of all three traffic exposure metrics. A causal analysis was also conducted for the three types of train. Infrastructure causes were the most frequent in all train types and length followed by equipment-related causes. These statistics provided important information for rational allocation of risk mitigation resources to improve rail hazmat transportation safety.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1168-1178
Number of pages11
JournalProceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Part F: Journal of Rail and Rapid Transit
Issue number10
StatePublished - Nov 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Mechanical Engineering


  • Freight train
  • derailment rate
  • hazmat transportation
  • safety comparison
  • unit train


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