Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Fact To Remember when Comparing Rail Systems: Portland’s At-Grade Trains Have Killed 26 People

We’re continuing our closer examination of at-grade rail system safety today, which was yesterday’s subject when we reviewed Portland, OR bicycle accidents involving train tracks.

We’re staying in Portland today to review the city’s light-rail safety record. Portland’s MAX system has attracted a following in Honolulu despite its rather alarming death statistics.

Portland residents are concerned about safety. A mother whose son was killed when hit by a MAX train while he was on his bicycle in a crosswalk near a station is pushing for a citizen safety review board.

The Portland Tribune carried a story this summer comparing the safety records of the heavy-rail WES commuter system with the MAX light-rail system. We’ll quote a few paragraphs:

"Unlike WES, several MAX lines run directly through crowded downtowns, including those in Portland, Hillsboro, Beaverton and Gresham. In some cases, they share streets with motor vehicles and bicyclists with no physical barriers between the lanes.
"Largely as a result of these differences, MAX trains are occasionally involved in accidents. The first pedestrian was killed July 28, 1986, during the testing period before the maiden line officially opened. The man was walking in the right of way near the Banfield Freeway and Halsey Avenue when a train hit him.
"Since then, 25 other people have been killed in collisions with MAX trains, most recently when a woman stepped onto the tracks near Southwest 170th Avenue on Feb. 26.
"Numerous MAX-related injuries also have occurred during the years. Between January 2008 and April 2010, there were 13 nonfatal accidents involving trains. Police investigations reveal that many of the collisions are suicide attempts. They include a June 16 incident in Old Town that was originally reported as the result of someone “playing chicken” with a MAX train, according to TriMet."

Darla Sturdy, whose son was killed in 2003, is especially concerned about improving safety near MAX stations. She hopes her work will prevent others from going through the grief of losing a loved one.

For their part, MAX officials are stuck with trying to make the at-grade system that’s been built safer than its track record would suggest.

“The individual has some responsibility to pay attention to their environment,” said a spokesperson. “We try to do everything we can to alert them. That’s why we added the audible (alert and) the light, trying to get people to pay attention. It’s really just to remind them they’re near the tracks – pay attention, took both ways.”

We’re not picking on Portland’s MAX, but facts are facts. At-grade rail systems are inherently more dangerous than elevated systems for the obvious reason they drive trains through busy urban areas where people walk, bike, drive, skateboard and stumble across their tracks. We can’t imagine a more congested urban area in Portland or anywhere else than Honolulu’s Chinatown, where local architects want an at-grade system to run in both directions along Hotel Street. Need we say more?

Honolulu’s elevated system will be immeasurably safer than at-grade transit. Actually, there is one measure of the difference, and that measure is the lives that won’t be lost and the lives that won’t forever be changed by serious injury from colliding with an at-grade train.

Pedestrians, cars, trucks, buses, bicycles and skateboarders do collide with at-grade trains. That simply won’t happen when our city builds Honolulu rail -- elevated.

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