Monday, November 7, 2011

One City’s Experience with At-Grade Rail Safety: Salt Lake City’s Search for Answers to At-Grade Crashes Deserves More than a Passing Glance; Bicyclist Dies There Today in Yet Another Incident

A truism in the blogosphere is that readership falls off sharply on weekends. If you have something truly significant worth sharing, it’s best to hold off for a weekday.

We violated that “rule” on Saturday because of timeliness. Salt Lake City’s at-grade TRAX rail system had experienced yet another accident earlier in the week, so we devoted Saturday’s blog to a review of TRAX’s safety record. Most of you missed it.

The safety issue has been virtually ignored by opponents of Honolulu’s future elevated rail system as they urge construction of an at-grade system. “We support rail transit,” they insist, “just not this project.” Former governors Lingle and Cayetano, a few outspoken architects and some environmentalists have taken pains to distance their support for rail transit from Honolulu’s elevated system.

Rail supporters find themselves hard-pressed to defend an elevated guideway against the indisputable fact that it will have visual impacts. There’s no denying them, but that’s not where the debate should end.

It can’t end until opponents are asked to defend the proposition that view planes are more important that human safety. That’s where the at-grade vs. elevated discussion must inevitably lead – and that’s why we’re returning on a weekday to the subject of Saturday’s post.

“It’s the Safety, Stupid!”
James Carville coined his catch phrase during the successful Clinton campaign 20 years ago to focus workers on the campaign's critical issue. “It’s the economy, stupid” was his way of reminding them that the nation’s economic recession was more important than the short-lived military success the incumbent had enjoyed thousands of miles from home.

Each year, scores of people are injured and some of them die from accidents involving at-grade transit systems. The deaths include pedestrians who unwittingly walk into the path of an onrushing train or stumble from a platform onto the tracks. Others are vehicle drivers and passengers who have ignored flashing lights, warning bells and crossing gates at rail intersections.

Today’s Death
Salt Lake City's experience with at-grade rail transit is a wake-up call for Honolulu residents. Another person was struck and killed by a TRAX train there today. According to a witness (see TV video), a bicyclist had just exited a train after realizing he was headed in the wrong direction. He got off and was hit almost immediately, perhaps while waiting to catch the train that killed him.

Dozens of comments were posted on media websites within an hour of the latest incident:
• “How is this still happening? You’d think as it’s been in the news so much people would learn to LOOK for these trains….”
“That’s the whole point. These are trains. (TRAX) needs to put out safety comments on their commercials that this mode of transportation is a TRAIN….”
• “…It’s unbelievable how many train accidents have happened recently. Please be careful when you are near those tracks.”
“…I do not understand why so many people are getting hit and/or killed. It is not as if TRAX trains or trains are new in our world!”
• “…”What is with people though? Did it really come out of nowhere, with no warning? I feel terrible for the family, but I just know there are going to be a bunch of nay sayers that want TRAX gone. It’s here and not going anywhere anytime soon. People need to give more respect to these fast-moving trains. It is people’s fault, not the TRAX fault, sadly.”
• “TRAX is a joke. How many people are being killed or injured by this line every week!!?”
• “TRAX is not a joke. We people are the joke. We the people do stupid things. They are called accidents, but we people caused them. TRAX is on rails. People are not on rails. That is no joke.”
• “…If any public projects became accident- or idiot-proof, nothing would ever be built.”
• “…This is another tragedy that could have been prevented….”

You get the picture. Utah residents are anguished by yet another fatality involving their transit system and the result of another human’s error in judgment – crossing when he shouldn’t have, not paying attention, standing too close to the platform’s edge, whatever.

Today’s death of course could have been avoided, and so could all of 2011’s crashes, injuries and fatalities there and elsewhere. This brings us back to Honolulu’s future transit system and the call by some to build it at ground level.

They need to be confronted by the at-grade accident experience and asked how they can possibly be serious about running rail tracks and trains through a city with one of the nation’s oldest populations. According to one ranking, Honolulu is #56 in that category, but that includes 22 higher-ranked communities in Florida and Arizona, which are famously home to increasing numbers of elderly “snowbirds.” Honolulu appears to be the largest city on that list, by far.

Since some, including the local architect chapter, propose running tracks through Chinatown on Hotel Street, ask them how they will protect the elderly and other pedestrians there. Trains traveling even 30 miles an hour in that configuration would be unthinkable, so ask them how they propose to provide fast, frequent and reliable public transit service with their slow-moving at-grade trains – characteristics that Honolulu’s future system must possess if it’s to become an attractive alternative to our growing congestion problem.

Building at-grade transit here just doesn’t add up. Honolulu’s elevated trains won’t run into pedestrians, bikers, cars, trucks or buses. Trains will travel above crowded streets in the urban corridor at speeds above 55 miles per hour – impossible for trains operating in Honolulu’s surface maze.

The elevated trails will be automated, so intervals between trains during rush hour will be only three minutes – also impossible for at-grade trains with humans at the controls. Stations will be equipped with platform screen barriers to prevent accidental or intentional falls/pushes onto the tracks.

Yes, the elevated guideway will produce some visual impact. So? As “mom of five’ wrote at, “What is the price of a life? There are too many deaths to try to make any other excuse except that there is something fundamentally wrong with the system.”

What’s wrong with TRAX is that it’s at ground level. Honolulu won’t make that same mistake when it builds elevated rail.
At-grade TRAX system claimed another victim today.

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