Introduction: Globally, railway transport is increasing steadily. Despite the adoption of diverse safety systems, major railway incidents continue to occur. Higher speeds and increased passenger traffic are factors that influence the risk of mass-casualty incidents and make railway crashes a reality that merits extensive planning and training.
Methods: Data on railway disasters were obtained from the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), which maintains the Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT). This descriptive study consists of 529 railway disasters (≥10 killed and/or ≥100 non- fatally injured) from 1910 through 2009.
Results: The number of railway disasters, people killed, and non-fatally injured, has increased throughout the last hundred years—particularly during the last four decades (1970–2009), when 88% of all disasters occurred. In the mid-20th century, a shift occurred, resulting in more people being non-fatally injured than fatally injured. During 1970–2009, 74% of all railway disasters occurred in Asia, Africa, and South and Central America, combined. The remaining 26% occurred in Europe, North America, and Oceania, combined. Since 1980, railway disasters have increased, especially in Asia and Africa, while Europe has had a decrease in railway disasters. The number killed per disaster (1970–2009) was highest in Africa (n = 55), followed by South and Central America (n = 47), and Asia (n = 44). The rate was lowest in North America (n = 10) and Europe (n = 29). On average, the number of non-fatal injuries per disaster was two to three times the number of fatalities, however, in the African countries (except South Africa) the relation was closer to 1:1, which correlates to the relation found in more developed countries during the mid-20th century. The total losses (non-fatally and fatally injured) per disaster has shown a slight decreasing trend.
Conclusions: Despite extensive crash avoidance and injury reduction safety systems, railway crashes occur on all continents, indicating that this type of incident must be accounted for in disaster planning and training. Better developed safety, crashworthiness, and rescue resources in North America and Europe may be factors explaining why the number of crashes and losses has stabilized and why the average number of people killed per disaster is lowest on these continents.