Both the Federal Railroad Administration and the Department of Transportation's inspector general have found poorly maintained track and inadequate inspections by the railroads could be partly to blame.
The number of railroad industry inspectors has been reduced and the federal and state governments have only 550 people to make sure that the industry is adequately checking 230,000 miles of track.
FRA's associate administrator for safety, George Gavalla, said the agency has focused its efforts on heavily used tracks and rail yards, and all tracks that carry passengers and hazardous materials. On those tracks, accidents are down, he said. Many of the derailments occur in yards when crews assemble train cars.
"We concentrate on where we think the risk is," Gavalla said.
Overall, FRA statistics show that the number of derailments on all tracks and rail yards rose by 18 percent between 1997 and 2000, from 1,741 to 2,059.
"Like any big business, railroads will try to cut corners," said Steven Moss, a partner in the California consulting firm of M. Cubed, which studies transportation safety. "They allow their track and other stock to depreciate and get rundown and don't make their proper safety investments until they are forced to do so."
The Association of American Railroads said most of the derailments occur in rail yards or on lightly used tracks, not the mainlines traveled by Amtrak and the major railroads. The trade group said the derailments, which typically occur at speeds of 5 miles per hour, are "equivalent to a fender bender involving two trucks in the parking lot of a truck stop."
The rise in derailments was addressed Thursday at a House railroads subcommittee hearing.
"When those kinds of numbers are up, rail passengers and the general public could be at risk," said the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Jack Quinn, R-N.Y.
Railroad industry officials reject any thought that they are skimping on safety. During the same four-year period, deaths from train accidents dropped 41 percent, from 17 to 10.
"The rail system is extremely safe," said Tom White, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads. "There aren't any widespread track defects. There certainly is no indication of any safety problem out there.
"Accidents don't do anything good for us. We have every incentive in the world to operate as safely as possible." While states inspect highways and bridges, the railroad industry inspects its own tracks. Overseeing the railroads' work are just 400 federal and 150 FRA-trained state inspectors.
Earlier this month, Amtrak's California Zephyr, en route from Chicago to Emeryville, Calif., with 257 passengers and crew aboard, went off the track in Iowa shortly before midnight.
The derailment occurred in the area where a rail defect had been detected and patched, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
In December, more than 20 cars of an eastbound Norfolk Southern freight left the tracks, snarling rail traffic and forcing Amtrak to find alternate transportation for 1,000 passengers traveling between Chicago and New York. Local officials blamed the accident on a broken rail.
"If the railroads are doing well at their own inspections, then you don't really need a lot of inspections by the federal government," Moss said. "But none of those things seem to be the case right now."
Gavalla said deaths and injuries along heavily used tracks are down since the FRA in 1998 began focusing on those routes. Between 1998 and 2000, there was one death and 45 injuries from accidents blamed on track problems, as compared to four deaths and 116 injuries during the previous three years.
The FRA began auditing one major railroad, CSX, after a series of derailments.
The agency found that the company reduced the number of inspectors and increased the amount of track the remaining employees had to cover. The FRA found that some CSX inspection reports "did not reflect the conditions" found by the agency's employees.
"The vast majority of track defects detected during the audit could have been detected and repaired with better track inspection and track maintenance practices," the FRA audit said.
The FRA has come under fire as well. In January, the Department of Transportation inspector general, who is examining FRA's safety program, noted "shortfalls in ... enforcement of identified safety deficiencies, such as widespread track defects."
Acting Federal Railroad Administrator Mark Lindsey said the safety program was still a work in progress. "Like all programs of this nature, it continues to be refined as strengths and weaknesses are identified," he said.