Saturday, November 5, 2011

SLC Media Cite Numerous Light Rail Accidents, Report on At-Grade Deaths across the Country

Aftermath of Monday's at-grade rail transit crash in Salt Lake City.
We’re not making this stuff up – the notion that at-grade rail transit has an inherent risk of accidents, injury and death. That’s why our “fast, frequent, reliable and safe” description of Honolulu’s future elevated rail system can’t be applied to surface transit – the kind preferred by former Governor Ben Cayetano and some local architects.

At-grade trains are routinely involved in accidents. Salt Lake City’s TRAX system had four in October alone, the same once-a-week rate that Phoenix’s at-grade trains racked up in its first year of service – 52 crashes in 52 weeks.

On this past Monday, a TRAX train slammed into a tow truck (TV station video here), seriously injuring the driver after he bypassed lowered crossing gates and drove into the train’s path. Yes, bad thinking (aka human error) is the cause of virtually all of these at-grade train accidents.

All the at-grade crashes shown in the photos in our right-hand column were caused by human error – drivers ignoring crossing barriers, drivers turning into the path of the train, bus drivers running red lights, pedestrians using bad judgment. Take your pick; it happens all the time in cities that for whatever reason built a rail transit system at ground level.

Making Comparisons
Salt Lake City’s Deseret News looked into the TRAX system’s accident record to compare it with other systems around the country after a spate of TRAX accidents, including pedestrian fatalities in June and August. It’s sobering reading, and we’d make it required reading for at-grade transit advocates in Honolulu if we could.

Since that’s not in the cards, maybe just looking at the photographs we’ve posted at the bottom of today’s Yes2Rail post will be enough to drive home the message that while at-grade transit doesn’t impact view planes, it does impact lives and property in devastating and irreversible ways.

Following Monday’s crash, The Deseret News wanted to know how the local system compares with other light-rail systems nationwide. The newspaper randomly selected systems of approximately the same length as TRAX had in 2007-10 before it added to the system – about 22 miles of track. The tables at right summarize the results. Salt Lake City ranks high in both TRAX’s number of accidents and fatalities. Transit officials have noted factors that make the city’s system “unique,” a claim that is probably made by all cities with at-grade systems.

Pedestrian Risk
TRAX spokesperon Gerry Carpenter said 2011 has been unusual in that six of the system’s incidents have involved pedestrians. From The Deseret News story: “There’s definitely an element of personal responsibility,” Carpenter said. “(Trains) are big, they can’t stop quickly and they can’t swerve.”

Carpenter urged pedestrians to walk defensively by not wearing headphones or text on their mobile phones while near train tracks. “We do recognize we have a responsibility to make our system safe,” he said. “We need to make our crossings safe. We want to improve our standards to protect pedestrians.”

Honolulu’s elevated systems will have no crosswalks, no cross streets, no possibility of running into cars, trucks and buses, and no possibility of being broad-sided by a red-light-running vehicle. Honolulu’s system will even have platform safety screens and doors in its stations that will prevent accidental falls onto the tracks.

With no possibility to interact with vehicles and pedestrians along its 20-mile route, Honolulu rail promises to be one of the safest systems anywhere in the world. Critics who seem consumed by the view-plane issue might well think through the consequences of what they're proposing – trains running at ground level through Chinatown and other Oahu neighborhoods.

So here’s the graphic evidence of just one city’s experience with at-grade rail transit. Honolulu’s news media would be capturing similar scenes if our fast, frequent, reliable and safe elevated rail system were instead built at ground level. Thankfully, that won't happen.
March 11, 2010 -- The Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office investigates a fatal TRAX train, car accident near 4100 South and 200 West in SLC (credit all photos, The Deseret News)
July 29, 2009 -- Two men were hit by a TRAX train at the Library Square stop in SLC.
October 31, 2008 -- A TRAX train passes by the scene where an accident between a separate TRAX train and the pictured automobile happened a short time before.
December 2, 2008 -- SLC police investigate a TRAX train and auto accident.
April 18, 2007 -- The automobile that collided with a TRAX train sits on Main Street.
May 17, 2007 -- TRAX and automobile accident at 500 South 1100 East in SLC.

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