As you may have heard, a Link train in testing collided with a car today or yesterday (the car was making an illegal turn, of course). The media might treat this as a huge deal – I won’t know, I’m still in Japan – but new light rail lines having accidents with cars isn’t just common, it’s absolutely universal: every single rail system with grade crossings has had an accident with a car at least once. In this, the third post in my series about Phoenix’s Light Rail opening (you can read the first here, and the second here), I discuss the things that went wrong with their opening (like collisions with cars) and how Phoenix has dealt with them. From this we should be able to guess what we can expect to go wrong with Link, and how Sound Transit and Seattle can deal with those. I’m going to divide the problems into three groups: trouble with cars, trouble with people and trouble with the system.
Collisions with Cars
Every rail system with grade crossings runs into some car trouble from time to time. At first drivers are very unused to rail vehicles: trains don’t stop quickly and cannot swerve out of the way of cars, and trains with dedicated rights-of-way tend to run in places drivers aren’t familiar with traffic coming from, like a boulevard in the center of a street. These drivers who don’t know what to do around trains often cause accidents by turning without looking, trying to squeeze through a red light expecting oncoming vehicles to slow down, and seeing trains but not knowing that they are moving objects. Occasionally new systems also have early glitches in their operation that haven’t discovered even with long and careful testing, of course these can be the cause of accidents as well.
The first accident after testing for the Phoenix system happened just four days after the line opened. In that case the driver fled the scene after the accident, so light rail got some sympathy in the public’s eye. About a week later the second accident (see video), was partly caused by the driver going through an intersection with the railroad arm down, and partly also caused by the railroad arm malfunctioning. The driver failed to yield when the arms were down, but we don’t even have crossing arms at most Link intersections, so that’s not a safety device or liability we need to worry about. Another accident was caused by a woman eating a sandwich and not paying attention as she turned.
Like Phoenix, Link has already been in one accident before opening, and will get into an accident eventually after opening, no matter how many precautions are taken. Sound Transit does need to make sure the accidents are few and far between in order to avoid becoming a national laughing stock with a rude sobriquet like Houston’s “Wham Bam Tram”. Houston’s system at one point had been in 75 accidents within a year of opening, an average of more than six a month on a 7.5 mile line. With that many accidents, it didn’t matter that all but one were the car driver’s fault. It’s also important for public perception that the drivers who caused the accident get ticketed, and quickly, so that news about the accidents also contains the drivers’ specific citations. Link’s grade crossings are fewer and less busy than Houston’s or Phoenix’s, so it’s possible that there will be fewer accidents. But if the South Lake Union Streetcar’s opening taught us anything, it’s that public awareness of train safety can be taught on the road with the train’s equipment clearly indicating both visually and aurally that a train is coming or it can be taught the hard way through media reports on accidents. The former is obviously better.
Cars on the Tracks
Phoenix has seen the other common light rail-meets car trouble: stupid drivers winding up on the tracks. This isn’t a problem just for new systems, last year a drunk driver went a couple of miles down Portland’s Max tracks before ending up in the 24-year-old Robertson Tunnel. It cost $20,000 to get the car out and it delayed service on the line for hours. Even San Francisco’s 91 year-old Twin Peaks Tunnel had a drunk driver make it two miles before getting stuck. Luckily that drunk got in there at 2 am and there was enough time to get him out before service started in the morning.
These stories are a little bit funny but service interruptions aren’t. I don’t imagine many drivers will be dumb enough to drive up the tracks into the Beacon Hill tunnel, and there’s already a good enough system to keep drivers out of the downtown tunnel, but eventually some drunk (or even someone sober) is going to end up on Link tracks one way or another. If it happens at 2am, great, the car will be long gone before service begins, but Sound Transit and the city of Seattle need to be quick about getting cars of the tracks during service hours. There’s little worse news for riders than service interruptions.
Pedestrian and Bicycle Collisions
Train tracks can be a problem for pedestrians and cyclists too, as you can see in the video. Eventually people get used to the trains and collisions become infrequent, like in Europe or San Francisco, but shortly after opening these accidents can be a serious problem. Link trains are surprisingly quiet, and if it weren’t for the bell sound the trains make, a train could sneak up one you pretty easily. Seattle is sort of famous for not jaywalking, or at least was once, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a pedestrian or a cyclist is hit by a Link train at some point in the future: in Phoenix a cyclist was hit by a train about two months after opening. I don’t know cycling patterns in the Rainier Valley that well, but it’s not hard to imagine someone on a bike getting involved in a collision with a Link car with potentially disastrous results.
It seems awareness is the best defense against both of these types of collisions. Something Phoenix has done to discourage people from illegally crossing over the tracks is to increase the jaywalking fine on train tracks and publicize the higher fine. Ostensibly jaywalking fines are there to discourage people from dangerous crossings, and Seattle may want to create a similar large fine for cyclists or pedestrians illegally crossing train tracks. Pedestrian and cyclist awareness will come one way or another, let’s just shoot for making it a safe one.
Crime is a major problem that riders can cause for new light rail systems, and it’s something that discourages potential patrons. Graffiti was common from the get-go in Phoenix, and Link cars and stations have already been vandalized before the system has opened. The first assault on a Phoenix light rail car or platform happened about three weeks after opening. Within two months, thefts and vandalism became a problem in Phoenix’s park-and-rides as well.
There’s only one park-and-ride on Link, so I don’t know how big a problem car vandalism is going to be, but the other crimes have the potential to ruin a good thing for everyone. Graffiti might seem harmless but it creates a sense of chaos and malice, especially among elderly riders. Obvious crime like drug or gang activity and violent crime like assaults can be enough to make people permanent non-riders and scare away potential new riders with word-of-mouth warnings: a train that’s not safe is a train that won’t be ridden. Southeast Seattle is a relatively high-crime area as far as Seattle goes, and an obvious security or police presence is really all that’s needed to deter crime on platforms and in the trains.
At some point crime is going to happen on Link trains, there’s really no way around it. Even the safest communities have some crime on trains: I witnessed an assault on a train in suburban Tokyo last week (I have no idea what they were fighting about). Sound Transit will contract with King County Sheriffs for transit police services, and ST and the city of Seattle need to take security on the trains and in the platforms seriously.
Problems with the System
Once the line opens, arguments over the perfect routing (“It should have gone to Southcenter!”) don’t end, but they die down a bit. Filling the vacuum with nearly as much force and vigor can be arguments about what is wrong with the system that did get built. In Phoenix’s case, there was a fairly sizable commotion over the lack of rest rooms in stations. First, riders complained about the lack of facilities at stations, then public officials joined in and eventually Mesa installed port-a-johns in some stations. Hilarious.
I like this letter the editor in the Arizona Republic on the Phoenix Metro’s toilet-gate:
Why should this be the responsibility of the transit system? If you travel around the city in your car, your truck or by bus, you must be resourceful enough to complete your journey without having a restroom provided.
Why is this any different?
Imagine the conversation here. Most of the area around Link stations is at least a little walkable and a restroom shouldn’t be that hard to find. In the five at-grade stations (Rainier Beach, Othello, Columbia City, Sodo and Stadium), toilets might be a bit trickier than the grade-separated stations, but I don’t imagine there’ll be a big firestorm around the lack of toilets.
This story does illustrate how something small can turn into a fairly large issue when a new system opens. If I had to guess what problem like this would arise around Link, I’d put my money on either the elevators at the Beacon Hill station being problematic during very busy times, or over-crowding and even crushing on the platform at Stadium station after a Seahawks game. I’m sure Sound Transit thought of both of these ahead of time, so maybe they’re taken care of already (the platforms at Stadium station are extra long, and I haven’t been into Beacon Hill station yet). But only time will tell, and even silly things you never could have anticipated could become a topic of conversation around the system’s opening.
In summary, shortly after opening I am certain a Link train will be involved in another collision with a car. I also expect some drunk will get their car stuck on the tracks some day, and that a train or station will get vandalized. I hope no pedestrians or cyclists are involved in collisions, though it’s at least a little likely, and I pray that no one gets assaulted or mugged on a train or near a station. I also expect that some minor feature of the system will become a talking point in the news, and I expect this blog’s response to be “you should have been paying attention years ago when this thing was designed”.
This is the last post focusing on Phoenix, though I’m sure not the last posting on a Link-car collision. From here, I’m going to continue to compare Link to other cities’ light rail systems, in particular the systems that opened in the last twenty years. Mostly, I’ll focus on how those cities incorporated the system into the urban fabric, which places were successful and which weren’t and why that’s the case.