The Sep. 24 Beacon Hill News & South District Journal has an extended piece about the two sides in the light rail safety debate.  I’d link to it, but it’s apparent their website is not ready for primetime.

Basically, businessman Ray Akers is nervous about accidents along the line because the Los Angeles Blue Line is also at grade, and has had a bunch of accidents.  With legal crossings far apart, people will be tempted to run across the street.  The paper quotes “some community members” as wondering why there aren’t any barriers to crossing anywhere along the tracks.

In response, Sound Transit’s Keith Hall points out the redesign of MLK has made it a far safer street.  LA Blue Line accidents are “mostly” where the trains travel 50 mph, while along the Rainier Valley Segment LINK will be limited to 35 mph.  Busy traffic on MLK, frequent trains, and the threat of police ticketing jaywalkers (cameras on the trains!) will deter crossers.  He blames the lack of barriers on community activists who were concerned that barriers would “divide” the community.

Our own Ben Schiendelman, commenting on other posts, has usefully pointed out that the trains are likely to be safer for pedestrians than both buses and driving.  That’s a point more relevant to those using safety as a convenient attack on light rail than those hoping to make it work as smoothly as possible.

Ben has also pointed to Tacoma LINK, which uses similar procedures to Sound Transit, as a predictor of an excellent safety record.  I’m a little less sanguine, for two reasons:

  1. Unlike Downtown Tacoma, the neighborhoods along MLK are overflowing with essentially unsupervised small children.  As someone who stands along MLK every day, I can also say that traffic isn’t really thick enough to make crossing obviously fatal, as it would be along Rainier Avenue.
  2. Even if no one gets hit and killed, which we all hope, that doesn’t mean there won’t be problems.  If kids (and irresponsible adults) get in the habit of darting across the tracks, it may very well be that operators have plenty of time to slam on the brakes and avoid a collision.  There may even be a policy lowering operating speeds as a result.  In either case, to have these kinds of random delays on a major regional trunk line is simply unacceptable.

What to do?  It was never financially possible to grade separate this segment of LINK, and it’s certainly too late now.  I’m not sure it’s necessary to reconstruct the Berlin Wall along the route, either.  What I would like to see is a 3-4 ft, tasteful, black iron fence to discourage small children and lazy adults.  It wouldn’t really cost a lot of money, and I’d like to see our leaders take this kind of action rather than wait for a tragedy, or do something that compromises the viability of a gigantic capital investment.

Over the longer run, I’d like to see SDOT begin a multi-year (multi-decade?) program of constructing underpasses for the major arterials that cross MLK, not unlike the S 180th St underpass in Renton that was constructed under the BNSF/Sounder tracks.  This would have the nice side-effect of allowing trolley wire to pass under the tracks, which opens up a lot of trolley bus routing possibilties.

But for now, I’d settle for the fence.

26 Replies to “Light Rail Safety”

  1. I’m all for a tasteful small fence as well. It’s the difference between an open invitation to cross and a polite reminder that you probably shouldn’t be there.

  2. Would you place 1 fence between the two lines, or two fences between the lines and traffic?

    One in the middle would be cheaper, but would be less of a visual deturant.

    Lor Scara

  3. On the whole cars drive a whole lot faster than 35mph on MLK. I think the likelihood of a kid being hit by a car is much higher than a train.

    That being said, I think it is possible for a kid to be hit, but not any more of a reason to put up a fence along the sidewalk to protect kids from cars as putting up a fence along the tracks.

    Also, I think a fence would increase the danger of a kid being hit by a car or train. The fence could allow a child or adult, caught by surprise, to trip onto the rails or into the street.

    I think ST has done a good job of making the street as safe as is possible.

    Education and law enforcement is the best ticket to reduce the risk of careless crossings.

    1. I agree – no fence between the tracks, as it might prevent someone from jumping clear of an oncoming train onto the adjacent tracks. We are a GROWING UP city now (well, sort of) and we and our children, unto the 10th generation, MUST learn about city living, including, hopefully, an ever increasing, never ceasing spread of rail transport.

  4. I feel safe in saying we should probably get in the position of advocating some sort of minor but tasteful barrier– like a strong plastic barrier in the shape of the ST wave device. Not too tall but certainly tasteful looking

    1. no offense, but i think that would look terrible. It wouldn’t fit with the style of the median strip at all. If there is going to be a fence, I say 3 to 4 foot black iron, like they currently have around the crossings.

  5. I’d like to see a short 3-4 foot black iron fence on both sides with emergency vehicle turnaround opennings every 200 meters (with do not enter signs of course). Any thoughts on what that might cost?

    1. It would cost you your next vote in public opinion. That neighborhood would scream bloody murder if you suddenly put up a fence they were promised there wouldn’t be.

      1. Well, I live in Rainier Vista, so in a way I AM “the neighborhood.”

        I haven’t spent a lot of effort canvassing the neighborhood, but given their very strong reaction to cars speeding through, I think they’d be alright with it.

    1. I think that’s a fantastic idea, EXCEPT that again, it leaves you in the position of getting ‘stuck’ on the roadway.

    2. There are, in fact, some curb cutouts where people can park on MLK. It’s necessary to support some of the businesses along the route.

  6. I think a fence would decrease safety. There’s not much clearance – people would squish against the fence to avoid a train, and then be crushed.

    I don’t see kids getting hit by cars today. Trains will be quieter than cars, but there’s great visibility for the operators and they do have a horn. I know ST has studied this, and they did choose not to put in a fence for more than just that the area didn’t want one.

    1. I think you’re right that kids won’t get hit very much. I find it likely, however, that they will cut it close often enough that the trains will have to screech to a halt, or be mandated to operate slower than 35 mph.

      I don’t think that’s really acceptable for a regional transportation asset.

      1. Eastside MAX is in the freeway ROW. I don’t know anything about the others, cuz I haven’t ridden them.

        I am on record as saying that the at-grade arrangement in downtown Portland stinks, because it’s too slow.

      2. Eastside MAX runs in the middle of Burnside for 5.3 miles.

        Interstate MAX runs in the middle of Interstate for 4.5 miles.

      3. I don’t think you’ll see such a mandate at all. The city’s agreed to 35mph already, and they understand the likelihood of accidents.

        Honestly, if you’re not seeing kids hit by cars on the road today, I don’t see that changing.

  7. Did any of you happen to live, work, or travel on MLK before Sound Transit came? This was one of the most pedestrian unfriendly streets in Seattle. Four lanes, high speeds, nowhere to go if you don’t make it across in time.

    Martin–under your line of reasoning we should have fences along every busy arterial–is that not true also?

    1. “Reality-based commute”

      Martin–under your line of reasoning we should have fences along every busy arterial–is that not true also?

      I think my original post makes it pretty clear why this situation is unique. First, more unsupervised small children than most neighborhoods in the city; second, pedestrians make both cars and trains travel a bit slower. Slow cars = good or neutral, slow trains = bad.

  8. Ben’s probably right that putting in a fence after telling the neighborhood they wouldn’t would be a bad move for Sound Transit. Especially since nobody can say how many lives are being saved by a fence since nobody knows how many people would wander into the street/onto the tracks.

    That said, a lot of cities use tasteful wrought iron fences to separate traffic from sidewalks and I believe they’re quite effective at two levels — to keep pedestrians out of traffic and to give pedestrians a sense that they’re protected from cars. Given how bad a walking environment MLK Is now, I could see some value to a sidewalk/street fence just to make the pedestrian environment better.

    Still, Ben’s got this right: the neighborhood (or at least some reasonable portion thereof) has to ask for it — otherwise it makes everyone unhappy.

    1. I think those fences end up put in after an accident or two. Let’s prove a need first, basically.

  9. Portlands Eastside Max runs through a Northeast Portland neighborhood where I work from time to time. It’s a neighborhood with a Mall, hotels, office buildings, and street level retail. Not many children around but plenty of pedestrians, including kids from a nearby high school that traipse across the line to hang out at the mall or a nearby park. The Max has cable fencing on a curb that creates separation between the train and car lanes. The cable fence has the added effect of pushing pedestrians to block corners to cross the street and the line. The fence does so without creating the feeling of neighbohhod “division” that was raised way back during the Centrail Link NEPA process (1998 or so). I think that type of cable fence would be reasonable approach.


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