Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Rail Basics, cont.: ‘Reliable & Safe’ Complete Need

Fast and frequent service – two “must have's” for the Honolulu rail project – dominated yesterday’s post, but to those you must add two other attributes the system will boast.

Many would agree that safety should never take a backseat, so let’s examine why the safety factor of elevated rail is immeasurably better than at-grade systems – a continuation of yesterday’s comparison of the two approaches.

There’s abundant evidence that at-grade rail is vulnerable to mishaps with other vehicles operating in the same space. It’s virtually unavoidable when bus, truck and car drivers don’t understand the signage designed to keep them safe, don’t see it, are impaired behind the wheel and/or just act too much like error-prone human beings. This photo of a train-van collision in Phoenix, AZ shows the result of an ill-advised right turn into the path of a train. Nobody was injured, but if passengers had been sitting behind the driver, fatalities would have been likely.

Trains running on the Houston, TX system, also built at ground level, encounter their own share of inattentive drivers at the wheel, including bus drivers. Blow a red light and this is what happens – injuries, damaged equipment, disruption in both bus and train schedules, all of which is avoided when rail transit is built on a different level, either below or above ground. The schedule disruption is more important than one might imagine; for a transit system to be attractive, it must be predictable, and accidents like this one make the system anything but.

Reliability Completes It

So the fourth leg of the “Desirable Transit Square” is reliability – having transit arrive and depart when it’s supposed to. Commuters on a system with a reputation for reliability can routinely schedule their trips based on a timetable. They’ll know before they even get on the train when it will arrive at their destination.

Grade-separated transit is the only transportation mode that allows you to do that. Buses and cars obviously don’t, since they’re subject to the surface congestion that elevated rail completely avoids.

Bring the four characteristics together in a system and you’ll have a fast, frequent, reliable and safe way to travel through town that’s virtually assured of success, especially when cost and convenience are part of the decision to ride.

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