Sunday, February 5, 2012

Phoenix At-Grade Train Hits Teen: ‘It Is Unknown How or Why Pedestrian Got in the Train’s Path’

Scene after last night's at-grade train accident in Phoenix, AZ.
A straight-forward answer to our headline’s quote from a Phoenix Fire Department spokesman is that both the teen and the train occupied the same space at the wrong time yesterday.

Phoenix built its 20-mile light-rail transit system at ground level, and within a few months residents were asking why there were so many accidents. The system recorded 52 of them in its first 52 weeks.

A search of Google for “Phoenix train accident” returns dozens of hits, including a page at’s website that’s devoted entirely to light-rail news, including numerous crashes.

Again, the straight-forward answer to the residents’ question is that Phoenix’s trains, cars, trucks and buses all operate at ground level – and unfortunately, so do pedestrians on occasion. Trains and vehicles collide in intersections and crossings because of human error after drivers ignore red lights and signage that should prevent crashes.

But that’s the problem with at-grade transit systems, isn’t it? They practically invite accidents because humans are error-prone, ignore signage, text while they drive, zone out mentally or otherwise do the wrong thing around at-grade trains.

Looked the Wrong Way
Phoenix Fire Department Capt. Scott McDonald said authorities didn’t immediately know “how or why the pedestrian got in the train’s path,” but a witness told a Phoenix television station the 17-year-old was standing on the tracks looking to see if a train were coming. One did, but it approached at 30 miles per hour from the opposite direction, hitting and pinning the teen to the curb. The teen was taken to a trauma center in stable condition. Said a witness:

“I just ran over there, and I looked at him. I tried to get him out, but he was really, his muscles were contracting, so it was pretty difficult. I got him out and I set him down on the floor, on the road, and I just held his head up and put him to the side to make sure he was OK." 
The same man gave this description to a different TV station:

“He wasn’t looking, and he got hit by the train. It hit him really bad, it threw him a couple feet away from it, and then it caught up to him and kinda dragged him to the side and under the train.”
The teen was taken to a trauma center in stable condition.

The point of highlighting accidents involving at-grade transit systems, of course, is that Honolulu’s elevated rail will experience none of these crashes, but that doesn’t stop rail opponents from suggesting view planes are more important than safety.

Our view: Proponents of at-grade rail transit, including political office-seekers, must address at-grade rail’s safety record and why they believe it would acceptable to introduce that unnecessary hazard into our community. And if reporters won’t do it, citizens should.

Honolulu: America’s Densest City
The Brookings Institution, a non-profit public policy research organization based in Washington, D.C., published a study on density in America’s cities in 2001: Who Sprawls Most? How Growth Patterns Differ Across the U.S.

The study found that Honolulu was the densest metropolitan area in the United States. The study made a point of noting Honolulu’s unique geography that contributes to the city’s density:

“Honolulu, of course, is atypically land-constrained for U.S. metropolitan areas because it is located on an island in the Pacific Ocean.” Elsewhere in a summary of the study, Brookings wrote:

“…Honolulu is not your image of urban jungle but tropical paradise jungle! Yet: It is 50% denser than number 2, LA. Why is this romantic city the densest? Development and parks have filled the flat areas, which are bordered by steep mountains and the ocean on three sides, the military bases to the west…. Consequently, people gather in public parks and other public places, generating a sense of community. The density also leads to higher bus use.”
Brookings has it exactly right, and the same density factors that contribute to high ridership on TheBus will do the same for Honolulu’s future rail system. It’s what anti-railers like Cliff Slater ignore when they recite statistics about rail ridership around the country – as if Houston, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Denver and the rest of them were comparable to Honolulu’s elongated layout between the mountains and the sea.

Safety deserves to be #1 in the list of considerations about the rail transit system that will serve Honolulu’s urban core communities. The people’s choice to build an elevated rail guideway above the perils of surface traffic was the right one. Let the office-seekers respond to that!

This post has been added to our "aggregation" site under the Elevated vs At-Grade heading.

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