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Is There a Safe Place to Sit on a Train?

One expert explains why where you choose to sit on a train can affect your odds of survival in the event of a crash.
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At least two of the passengers killed in this week's Amtrak crash in Philadelphia were sitting in the first two cars — and some experts believe that's the worst place to be in the event of an accident.

Although riders have been killed in all sections of trains involved in collisions or derailments, rail safety lawyer Larry Mann always tells his wife to head for the middle.

"The safest spot in a train, during an accident, is the center of the train," said Mann, who was the principal author of the Federal Railway Safety Act in 1970.

"Because if there is a front-end collision or a rear-end collision, the damages will be greater at those locations. The middle of the train is by far the safest for persons."

The National Transportation Safety Board does not release comprehensive data on where victims were sitting during fatal train accidents, though some details are available in individual investigative reports.

But Mann says that of the track tragedies he has personally analyzed, "persons involved in passenger train accidents usually survive if they were in the middle of the train."

That was the case in 2008 when a Metrolink commuter train collided with a freight train in Chatsworth, California, killing 25 people — 22 of them in the first car, according to the Los Angeles County coroner's report cited in an NTSB report.

All five fatalities on a Metro-North commuter train that hit an SUV in Valhalla, New York, three months ago were in the first car. And the four people killed in a high-speed Metro-North derailment in the Bronx in 2013 had also been sitting in the front end, officials said at the time.

But the unique circumstances of train accidents make it impossible to predict which cars will bear the brunt of a crash. Four people were killed in a 2000 crash in Hatfield, England, when a rail broke as the train sped over it; all of the dead were in the seventh of nine passenger cars. The four people killed in a 2002 Amtrak derailment in Crescent City, Florida, were in the middle of the train.

And yet Andrew Maloney, a lawyer who has represented victims of rail crashes, said he does not sit in the first car.

Within the cars, he said, those who are killed or injured could be sitting anywhere.

"People by windows have been ejected in roll overs. People not by windows have been tossed around like rag dolls and killed or seriously injured as well," Maloney said.

Abe Zumwalt of the National Association of Railroad Passengers said his group has not looked into the issue of which seats are safest, saying it's too variable.

"You want to think about protecting every seat," he said. "And the way to do that is to invest in infrastructure."