Monday, January 30, 2012

Triple-Fatality SUV, Light Rail Train Crash Prompts Question: ‘Why Is At-Grade Transit the Problem?’

A Sacramento light-rail train speeds through intersection.
Sacramentio, CA police and transit authorities are still sorting through why the driver of an SUV reportedly drove around a crossing arm and into the path of a light-rail train two days ago. Two adults and a toddler died, and one adult is in intensive care.

The light-rail system’s general manager added details yesterday after viewing video from cameras mounted on the train. “There are sound walls on their side of the tracks, so visibility is limited, and the train was traveling 50 to 55 miles per hour,” he said.

Yesterday’s Yes2Rail post focused on the tragedy and prompted a question at Twitter from someone we respect who is truly a transit expert. “Why is the problem at-grade transit?” he tweeted. “You could just as well blame at-grade cars, especially since they’re almost always at fault.”

It’s a reasonable query from a transportation professional who has decades of experience with grade-separated and at-grade systems around the world. We can appreciate his preference to focus on one possible cause of the Sacramento crash – driver impatience and disregard of traffic laws.

Fault Isn’t the Issue
Our response acknowledged the truth in the expert’s tweet but also noted that in a city where at least some prominent rail opponents apparently want at-grade transit built here instead of an elevated guideway, safety is a top issue, and citizens need to be reminded of that.

Finding fault in one at-grade crash is irrelevant when comparing the overall safety of ground-level and grade-separated transit systems. Honolulu’s future elevated guideway simply will never experience the kind of train-vehicle crashes that have become all too common in cities like Phoenix, Houston and Sacramento. TV stations like Sacramento’s KCRA-TV often post videos of these accidents, such as this one.

Honolulu already selected elevated rail after an exhaustive analysis of which technology would be the best choice for this city. Oahu’s restricted space and population density entered into the decision, but so did safety – an issue the vast majority of residents undoubtedly believes is important.

Rail opponents are pressing their case against Honolulu’s future elevated guideway but never mention at-grade transit’s "safety problem" and its potential to forever change lives and even end them.

They’ll continue to blast the current project over their concern about the guideway’s potential to affect view planes. Proponents of the current plan have every right to demand a forthright discussion of the safety issue, too, which more than a few of us believe is more important than aesthetics.

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