Ask LH: Where’s The Safest Seat On The Train?

Ask LH: Where’s The Safest Seat On The Train?

Dear Lifehacker, I’m new to train commuting and have been pondering the best seat direction to sit in on the train. I’m preferring a rearward facing seat at the moment because in an accident the seat will brace my body keeping me in the same position.

I may have a bit of whiplash but am unlikely to have the head injuries that those in forward-facing seats have succumbed to when they fly out of their seats — but what if they fly into me? Perhaps backwards facing at the rear of the carriage? Which carriage though? Does the crumple effect mean the back carriage has a less sudden stop then the front ones, meaning less injuries? Thanks, Curious Commuter

Dear Curious Commuter,

Bluntly, you are asking the wrong questions, because you’re starting from the assumption that train travel is dangerous and that the most important aspect is to ensure you aren’t injured. That’s an irrational viewpoint.

You are much more likely to be injured driving a car than taking a train. As this piece points out, 20 Australians are killed on public roads every week. In the decade to July 2012, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau identified 350 railway-related fatalities, and the vast majority involved staff and maintenance workers or collisions at level crossings (which are far more likely to be fatal for car drivers than for train passengers). No element of life is free from risk, but your chances of dying in a train accident are extraordinarily remote.

Your questions also demonstrate that there are a huge number of variables involved, and you can’t possibly factor them all in meaningfully. For instance, you point out that the “crumple effect” might mean less impact to the back carriage — but what if a train coming up from behind ignores signals and runs into you? Do you need a different strategy for trains with reversible seats (common in Sydney)? What happens if you catch a Perth train where all the seats are on the outside of the cars rather than facing forwards or backwards? What about a Melbourne train where passengers often face each other?

Simply put, there’s no way of knowing what might happen in an accident, and stressing about this issue doesn’t make sense. In reality, on a rush-hour train you’re often grateful for whatever seat you can get. One thing you can be sure of: it’s less risky to be sitting down than standing, if only because you won’t fall over if the train comes to a sudden stop.

Rather than worrying about safety, consider other factors. Plenty of people experience motion sickness or discomfort if they’re facing “the wrong way” on the train. If you don’t, use this to your advantage and always choose a seat facing the “wrong way”, since it’s less likely someone will sit next to you. If you prefer silence, check if there’s a quiet carriage option. Planning your journey for comfort makes sense; planning for paranoia is foolish.


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  • You would be more likely to be injured by an irate passenger in my experience. I always sit in a position that gives good vision around the carriage and prefer to sit in the end seats so you could not be hit from behind. I used to travel along the South Coast line daily and had to be evacuated due to an electrical fire, we had to exit via the front car and it took a lot longer that I would have thought. So to recap – 1st or 2nd carriage with good view of your surrounds! 🙂

    • Yeah I think so too, it’s more likely you get trouble from angry / drunk yobs or teens rather
      than a full on train crash or derailment.

    • I’m with you on all of these counts. I thought this was going to be the focus of the question (personal safety and comfort) rather than the paranoia of a slim to no chance accident.

      I also place myself in or around the door that gets me closest to the station exit when I arrive. I do try and steer clear of the very front carriage too as this is best to keep clear for people in wheelchairs.

  • Come to Melbourne and you won’t have to worry about where to sit because the answer is there isn’t anywhere.

  • I like how you at no point attempted to answer his question. Some people worry whether it’s a realistic risk or not, but taking even a small step to reduce that risk helps them feel in control. (see: avoiding the beach at dawn and dusk. your chances of being bitten are still incredibly small, but it makes some people feel safer)

    I guess it depend on the scenario: If you have enough warning to brace yourself against the seat in front, sitting forwards is probably better. if you have no warning at all, sitting backwards would be – you’re risking your spine a bit more, but at least you don’t get thrown around.
    And if you’re standing during peak hour, everybody else standing in the carriage becomes padding.

    • Your own examples reinforce the fact that too many factors come into play to answer the question, whatever you think of its relevance. Under what circumstances exactly will you have enough forewarning of an accident to choose to sit facing forward?

      • but that’s kind of the point of asking the question – he’s hoping somebody will clear up the confusion caused by all the variables, and let him know which ones aren’t particularly relevant (say, by looking up some crash statistics and figuring out the most-common crash type to prepare for).

        I agree with your summary, and if the question was something like ‘how safe is public transport’ I’d be completely fine with it…but it’s not.

        • Given the utter infrequency of train crashes that injure passengers, I doubt that this could be done either. It’s really not something you can prepare for, and that (IMHO) is the answer to the question.

    • I clicked on the link because I was interested to know the answer. It’s a shame there wasn’t one.

  • At first reading I thought you were saying our Perth trains had the seats out in the open air. They’ve been inside for years now and apparently in the next ten years they’re doing away with the holes in the floor that we stick our legs through to push the train along and replacing them with engines powered by something called “elastic trickery” (not sure if that’s correct, it sounded awfully technical).

  • You’re more likely to be beaten up by racists or thieves than to have to worry about train accidents.

    My wife was beat up by thieves. And I know of others that have been accosted for being Asian on the trains.

  • So rather than answer the question using logic and science, it’s better to berate the person asking the question and explain to them all the reasons why that question is “wrong”.

    • More to the fact, their isn’t a right answer. There a numerous ways a train could crash and in each circumstance the ‘right’ place to be is different. Plus it is different in many states as well as the type of train you are actually on that day.
      As for using science, I’m pretty sure it would be hard to get crash test dummy data from train accidents to verify your findings. As for logic that is pretty much what the post is. Sit down is good, but otherwise no seat is better than any other because there are too many variables in the accident for choice of seat to make a difference

  • Not sure about rear facing vs front facing, but I generally tend to avoid the very front or very back carriage, as I’d assume those would be more risky to be in during a train on train collision.

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