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What is a Derailment?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 23, 2024
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A derailment occurs when a train or other track-run transportation device comes off its rail. These accidents can be serious and potentially fatal to passengers on the train, as well as at the site of the derailment. Various factors can cause derailments, including collision, improper speed, or damage to the railway.

Unfortunately, fatal derailments are part of the history of trains, although accidents are fairly infrequent. Derailments on passenger trains tend to result in more injuries and deaths. Many experts cite the 1917 derailment of a French train carrying troops as the worst in history; over five hundred were believed to be killed when a train left the tracks near the mouth of a tunnel in Modane, France. Although modern technology has improved safety systems and specific safety regulations are imposed on most train lines, trains in the 21st century travel much faster than earlier systems, making derailments possibly more dangerous for passengers.

A potential cause of derailment is damage or decay of the track or wheel system. Rails can break in severely cold weather, or erode over time. If wheels hit the track wrong, it can create a “wheel burn” on the rail, which may lead to weakening or fissures in the track. Fortunately for train travel, modern technology has greatly improved the durability and safety of tracks, as well as created extensive safety systems on board trains.

Collision may be another major factor in causing derailment. Grazing animals may wander on to tracks, causing a potential accident. Storms can push debris such as branches onto tracks, which may be difficult to see until the train is too close to prevent a collision. While collisions do not always cause a derailment, the simple physics of a speeding train hitting a stationary object creates considerable potential for one to occur. Derailments can also occur when a train driver attempts to stop suddenly to avoid a collision.

Although damage, injuries, and fatalities can occur even with slow-moving trains, catastrophic damage becomes more likely with faster trains. One main cause of derailments is excessive speed, especially around dangerous curves. In many countries, train speed is strictly and carefully monitored, but crashes and derailments due to speeding have been known to occur.

In the event of a train derailment, it is important to remain calm and act quickly. Listen to all announcements and instructions given by the driver. If the surrounding terrain is safe, exit the train through an emergency exit or window if necessary. Contact emergency personnel, and let emergency workers know the location of any severely injured passengers.

WikiMotors is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis , Writer
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for WikiMotors. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.

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Jessica Ellis

Jessica Ellis


With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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