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California Metrolink Derailment Is Latest in Series of High-Profile Crashes

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A commuter train derailment outside Los Angeles that sent 28 people to the hospital and left a tractor-trailer in flames was the latest in a series of high-profile accidents on the nation’s rails.

It was only a week ago that a 109-car train carrying crude oil derailed in snowy West Virginia, destroying a home and sending one of the cars tumbling into a river that supplies drinking water.

And earlier this month, a commuter train in the New York suburbs hit an SUV that was inexplicably stopped on the tracks, killing the driver and five passengers on the train. That collision was so powerful that the electrified third rail dislodged and pierced the train.

A person or a car is hit by a train every three hours in the United States, according to government statistics, but the latest series of crashes comes at a time when train travel is getting safer.

Crashes at grade crossings — places where a road crosses the tracks at ground level — are down 30 percent in the past decade, and deaths in those crashes are down 35 percent, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

The agency credits engineering improvements, including flashing lights and gates, plus tighter enforcement of traffic regulations and driver education.

As NBC News reported earlier this month, American railway systems are working on technology to make trains even safer, including special cameras and sensors, but experts say that implementing them would be difficult and costly.

It was not immediately clear what caused the collision in California, which left at least three of the commuter train’s cars off the rails and on their sides. The driver of the tractor-trailer fled and was later taken into custody, police said.

On Monday, federal investigators released a preliminary account of the crash outside New York but stopped short of assigning blame. That crash involved a train on the Metro-North system, which has been plagued by accidents in recent years.

The oil train derailment in West Virginia is still under investigation, too. There have been at least 54 serious accidents in the United States since 2006 involving trains carrying oil or ethanol, according to The Associated Press.

A previously unreported Department of Transportation analysis revealed by the AP last week forecasts an average of 10 oil or ethanol derailments a year over the next decade. It warns that hundreds of people could be killed if such a derailment happened in a heavily populated area.

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