There was an awful high-speed rail crash in Spain yesterday, and according to the latest reports at least 80 people are confirmed dead. It appears that for some reason, the train took a turn much too fast and then derailed. What's notable about the accident, though, is how rare this kind of accident is. Though we haven't built much high-speed rail in the United States, it's been installed all over Europe and Asia, and overall the safety record is remarkably good. Japan's Shinkansen system, which has been in place since the 1960s, hasn't had a single fatality from a collision or a derailment. The same is true of France's TGV, which has operated since the 1980s.
So how safe is train travel, compared to the other ways we get around? The answer is going to vary depending on what country you're talking about, but the answer is, very safe. For instance, in the U.S. in 2011, there were 32,367 road fatalities, 485 air fatalities, and 570 railroad fatalities. The raw number isn't the proper measure though, because your risk is a function of how far you might go on each mode of transportation. The better measure, then, is fatalities per a given distance traveled. And there too, we see that train travel and air travel are both substantially safer than road travel.
The real killer, though, is motorcycles. A doctor once told me that medical professionals sometimes call them "donorcycles," since they produce so many organ donors. I tried without success to find one source that gave comparable data on miles traveled per fatality for all different kinds of U.S. travel, but I did come across this report from the European Union from 2001/2002, which gives some pretty striking numbers. Here's a graph:
Even though these aren't the latest numbers, you get the idea. What jumps out is that the individual means of transportation are the least safe, and the communal ones are the safest. Emotionally, though, we feel more safe when we feel that we, and not somebody else or an automated system, is in control. Most of us think we're excellent drivers, and this contributes to the belief that we have the ability to determine what would happen to us in an accident. I'd be able to deftly maneuver my way around that 18-wheeler jackknifing in front on me on the highway! Maybe sometimes. But there are lots of circumstances in which you wouldn't. Sometimes it might be your own fault, other times it wouldn't. Speaking personally, I may not be dumb enough to text and drive, but on plenty of occasions I've been fiddling with the radio and realized I hadn't looked at the road in five or six seconds, which is more than enough to time to get you or someone else killed.
Nevertheless, a big part of what makes the prospect of an air or rail accident so scary is the fact that you'd have almost no way to save yourself if it happened to you; whether you lived or died would be a function of factors out of your control.