I think I misfired a bit by focusing on the bogus liability discussion and not on the broader safety issues John Niles was raising.  (By the way, Mike Lindblom did a great piece on this subject back in 2004.)  A few points and I’ll leave the subject — at least till the next accident.

  • We trade safety for convenience and cost all the time.  Holding Light Rail to a standard beyond all other modes of transportation doesn’t make any sense unless you’re trying to stop light rail.
  • Almost everyone agrees that, all else being equal, grade separated is better than not, for many, many reasons.  Some people really don’t like the visual impacts of elevated track, but that isn’t me.  The problem is that all else isn’t equal.  For various political and financial reasons grade separation simply wasn’t going to happen if this were to get built at all.  If you put basically no value on having rail in the region that’s a small price to pay, but for the rest of us that’s a big deal.
  • Running Light Rail down the street is not a daredevil stunt.  It’s done all the time in cities across the United States and around the world.  There’s likely to be an adjustment period, but after that people will get used to it.  There’s no reason to be an alarmist.
  • I went back and read John Niles’s report more carefully.  I think the technical core of his argument is that non-passenger injuries should have been included in the FTA safety analysis, and therefore that the project should have been rejected by the FTA.  Different strokes for different folks, I guess, but I should point out that (a) it’s far from clear, from a legal standpoint, from the document that one should include external injuries; (b) I don’t see any reason to view the FTA criteria as particularly valid, in a metaphysical sense, given the way we treat other transportation modes; and (c) given that the money is already awarded and spent, the whole argument is irrelevant.
  • All that said, the reason we’ve been given that there isn’t a short, tasteful fence along the length of the surface segment is that emergency vehicles have to be able to make turns and U-turns over the tracks.  That’s a valid interest, but someone ought to do the analysis on whether that actually saves more lives than fencing the thing off except at designated crossings.

32 Replies to “Rail Safety Roundup”

  1. In the fall of 2008, people were driving less and the death rate on roads went down. Therefore, using Niles’ logic, we should ban all cars on roads to reduce the death rate.

  2. Bells, whistles, horns, signs, gates, and fences are all needed along mass transit corridors. We should expect no less to protect the public from the few amoung us that fail to show good judgement when transit and general access are in a mixed environment. Accidents are going to happen. Minimizing the delay and potential injury to both transit riders and the public is just good public policy.
    CalTrain, in the Bay Area, has run commuter trains for years, so the learning curve is long over. Yet, everytime someone collides with a train, the system shuts down for a while. Fatalities for the last several years were:
    » 2007: 8
    » 2006: 17
    » 2005: 10
    » 2004: 9
    » 2003: 10
    Source: Caltrain

    4 quadrant gates and pedestrian fencing along mixed use sections should be a top priority for Link (except where grade seperated), and eventually by Sounder as daily trips are increased. The “headsetted I-podders”, and “texting drivers” of the world aren’t getting any smarter, and Darwinism isn’t going to reduce their numbers anytime soon.

    1. Did folks in the Bay area have an momentary argon gas leak in 2006? What do you think caused the uptick of accidents in 2006? Did they forget rail safety or something?

      1. With such small numbers it doesn’t take much to skew the results. A van load of people stalled on the tracks could account for the entire years fatalities.

    2. Mike, do you know whether those numbers include so-called suicide-by-train? As I understand it, the majority of Caltrain fatalities (including several high-profile ones recently) involved pedestrians intentionally stepping in front of trains. Crossing gates help stop accidents, but suicide is a whole different ballgame.

      1. Well, there seems to be a trend of suicide by train, especially at Gunn High School, in Palo Alto. One this month and one last month. I’m sorry you asked, and that I looked it up.
        That’s really sad!

  3. Thanks Martin, I appreciate the balanced tone of this post. I agree that the RV route is not particularly unsafe, but I also think that we should make safety improvements a priority for all modes of transportation.

  4. The other issue that was part of the original complaint is that the MLK way route was part of the “spine” of the system. That there would be many trains running down to Tacoma via this route and it made no sense to leave the crossings ungated.

    My take is that if ST had built the spine route down Marginal Way or Airport way, they never would have put in the MLK spur. But because they did, ST will have to add another Southbound spine. In addition it gave the system guaranteed riders because Metro will be removing the bus the MLK riders use. And if Seattle gets around to changing the density rules around the stations the New Urban designs would step up and build more nice housing further increasing the ridership.

    They should put a short fence (3ft?) along the whole route with gates at the crossings. The few idiots who circumvent this will be fewer than what we have now.

  5. Growing up in Frankfurt am Main, I lived near where the U1/2/3 (Escherheimer Landstrasse) ran at grade before descending into the tunnel to Centrum. The trains run in the middle of that street and cross at grade without gates or fences. I don’t exactly recall bodies piling up with 5 minute headways. As for drivers hitting trains, personally I chalk it up to a cultural issue ( always have to get ahead in the US ) and poor driver instruction.

    1. It goes away after time. San Francisco and Boston don’t have nearly as many train-car accidents as Phoenix does, mostly because those systems have been there 100 years instead of 6 months.

    2. Agreed. People elsewhere in American and throughout the world deal with this on a daily basis without problems – we Seattleites aren’t so dumb that we can’t do it too. This notion that somehow we need a big government solution to protect ourselves from our own stupidity is pretty ridiculous.

      And a fence would only make things worse. There is no fence by design so that emergency vehicles can cross the route as required, and putting a 3 foot fence up would create more of a safety problem then it solves. You would increase the response time for emergency vehicles, and those jaywalkers intent on bolting across the tracks in front of train would undoubtedly try to scramble over it. If they make it over successfully then maybe they are fine. If not, well, score another one for Darwin.

  6. A short chain barrier could be strung down the middle of the MLK trackway, as a way to discourage jaywalkers and some of the unlawful left turns (those that jump the curb). Emergency vehicles could still get through with the inclusion of a breakable link in the middle of the chain, one that would yield when hit by the bumper of an aid car or fire truck.

    This won’t help the folks like the gentleman this week, who look at the red arrow and decide to turn left anyway. Not every accident yields clues to a design fix.

    Incidentally, I hope everyone notices the “no ped crossing” signs installed at each corner where there is no signalized crossing of MLK. It’s an international symbol sign, with no words, so hopefully it will be understood by everyone.

    1. Supposedly there is a risk if there is a barrier in the middle of the trackway of people getting trapped next to the barrier if a train goes by. Think of the jersey barrier down the middle of Aurora South of 80th or so.

      1. I’m talking about a chain barrier in the middle of the MLK trackway, Chris, something a person could step over (or duck under) — nothing for anyone to get trapped against. Please reread my post.

    2. Not such a great idea. People who want to cross will cross. Witness Aurora Ave at night, with all kinds of people trying to jump the large jersey barriers.

      Put an obstacle in the way, and transgressors will focus on getting past the obstacles. Rather than keeping an eye out for oncoming trains.

  7. I think grade separation on MLK could have happened, as we ended up with extra money from Sound Move. This is pretty much the best at-grade light rail I have seen, but it’s still not nearly as good as grade-separated. I hope we can grade separate that sometime in the future.

    1. When the Link NEPA process was ongoing in the late 1990’s, several local emergency response agencies complained during scoping at the mere suggestion of examining alternatives containing grade separation in thoroughfare alignments, even in the mild form of curbed medians. They expressed concern that anything other than at-grade, in-ground rails along the arterial through their jurisdiction would hinder emergency response times. The city that complained the most (and nearly cost me my job with the firm I consulted for at the time) caused their community to lose the arterial alignment that would have best served them in my opinion.

      1. The city that complained the most (and nearly cost me my job with the firm I consulted for at the time) caused their community to lose the arterial alignment that would have best served them in my opinion.

        Sounds like Tukwilla and the International Boulevard alignment.

  8. Thank you, Martin, for a more balanced comment.

    I believe John and CETA are opponents of rail, but it doesn’t automatically make all of their points invalid. (See the other, crazy side of the local Discovery Institute as a great example.)

    Mike raises a great point above, which was the concern of many in the “monorail crowd” who opposed this back then. Most of us aren’t anti-ST, or anti-light rail; we were against how Link was being planned. The biggest concern was at-grade along MLK because every accident, no matter how minor and how much to blame the driver or pedestrian is, shuts down the system for some indeterminate amount of time.

    I still believe that’s a mistake that could have been resolved with a little more support from electeds. The decision to save money up front may just cost us more down the road, like replacing the rails in the DSTT did.

    1. This ridiculous notion monorail true-believers keep pedalling needs to end.

      Why on fricking earth should mass transit be built AROUND solo drivers in automobiles?

      A huge elevated light rail structure down MLK would have done nothing but preserve the strip mall/ auto-centric culture which has destroyed much of the valley’s community fabric.

      Which explains why so many right wing road warriors signed up for the John Niles & Mickymse monorail.

      An elevated or tunneled line would not have spurred as much density near rail stations, either (‘social engineering in Niles’ Kemper Freeman social circles)

      After seeing the positive results of light rail in the Rainier Valley, it boggles the mind that monorailians are still spending all their waking hours trying to suck-up to automobile culture.

    2. Mickymse is also misrepresenting the facts when he says “most of us” weren’t opposing light rail, in my view.

      Might have been true for him, and maybe two or three other monorail activists – but the record shows Friends of the Monorail’s mission was to destroy light rail so their fantasy transit league movement could “prevail”. Indeed, the entire monorail movement was couched in anti- light rail sentiment. In the end, it was this knee-jerk reactionary base which ultimately doomed the Green Line – a project I supported.

      I would invite Mickymse to name more than a select few monorail activists who also supported light rail – just to price my comments go beyond the threshold of political rhetoric. I’ve got a long list of monorail adherents (such as John Niles) who tried to kill off light rail in this city – and I would be happy to put them up against Mickymse’s anemic smattering of names.

  9. Bogus arguments and not deserving of coverage. Link accidents to date have all been due to drivers making illegal maneuvers, not to mention not properly looking around before making them. Odds are quite likely they would have just as easily been hit by opposing traffic. Why are we supposed to accomodate people who can’t drive?

  10. I don’t really get it. Do we need fences here? Seems like the curb is enough. Besides, I thought all of the collisions this far have occurred at the intersections (traffic lights).

  11. So, since Link testing has begun what non-rail related accidents have happened along MLK. I’m willing to bet there have been some that caused at least as much damage as the well publicized ones involving the train. How does the non-rail related accident rate vs. the same time period last year? It’s a small snap shot but it’s real data. Of course a fender bender and a non-injury pedestrian accident never makes the news. Bike accidents rarely make the news unless it’s a fatality or there’s a lawsuit.

    It would also be nice to know when emergency vehicles “jump the tracks”. Was the maneuver necessary in terms of life saving seconds or did a cop pull a U-turn just because he can?

  12. Believing anything John Niles is paid to lie about is a big mistake.

    Apparently, Martin didn’t notice his ranting about “blaming the victim” (drivers who violate the law).

    Snake oil may taste ok after the first sip. But, if Martin had any idea about the intellectual depths Niles is capable of…he probably wouldn’t be so sympathetic.

    1. If you read that as “sympathetic,” I’m a poor writer or you’re a poor reader.

      See my previous post on the subject to see what I think about “blaming the victim”.

  13. In response to the recent discussions on this blog about light rail safety, I took the time to look up the basic numbers and calculate the accidental fatality rates per passenger mile for light rail and for urban driving.

    Confirming what I found five years ago when I first did this, the fatality rate for light rail has always been greater than for urban driving throughout the past ten years, up to three times higher.

    I posted a chart with the year by year results of the calculations at http://www.bettertransport.info/pitf/linksafetycertification.htm .

  14. For anyone tempted to take the comments by John Niles as a true concern, don’t waste your time. He is opposed to rail transit and will do anything to stop it. You’ll notice he holds up cars as a super-safe mode of transit compared to light rail. His comments also completely ignore any accidents that buses have or deaths that occur with a bus involved. These aren’t comments from a citizen interested in transit safety. That’s a pure smoke screen. He has been working for years to stop light rail in any way possible.

    His solution? Nothing. He has none. He’s never proposed one in any detail other than “bus rapid transit”.

    It’s also strange how someone like Mr. Niles completely ignores the responsibility of people who are involved in light rail accidents. Instead, he thinks the government should take care of you and you, as a pedestrian, carry no responsibility for your behavior.

    Perhaps a more interesting discussion would be how can anyone NOT see a train coming and not avoid a train coming at them? How is that possible?

  15. How can a driver or pedestrian not seeing a train coming be possible?

    Easy to answer, not paying enough attention … distracted in some way.

    Driver distraction is a big safety issue. The U.S. Secretary of Transportation is holding a “summit” on the topic Sept 30 – Oct 1.

    http://www.rita.dot.gov/distracted_driving_summit/ .

    Overall, RIDING aboard transit is safer for drivers than driving. Riding on the streets in any big vehicle is safer for the rider than riding in a small vehicle.

    The per passenger mile fatality counts for light rail and for driving speak for themselves at http://www.bettertransport.info/pitf/linksafetycertification.htm .

    Martin Duke’s note at the top, “we trade safety for convenience and cost all the time,” is precisely right.

    Rich Borkowski saying of me that I think “the government should take care of you and you, as a pedestrian, carry no responsibility for your behavior” is deeply wrong. As a child, I was run over by a car at a guarded school crossing and put in a hospital for months. I am deeply aware of personal responsibility when crossing streets or RR tracks on foot, and I think everybody should be very careful.

    Finally, as one who does oppose the construction of more light rail and trolley cars in Seattle, I want to be clear that the hazard issue is by no means the biggest argument for my opposition.

  16. It’s outrageous that Boston would put its residents at risk by failing to install proper gated fencing in the tunnels at the T-stops where the track is below grade. More than one person has fallen into the track, and there is no effective method of getting out – even if no trolley is coming.

    The risk to children, and everyone is far beyond the conscience of the cost that it would take to remedy the situation. That it has been that way for 100’s of years is remarkable, to say the least. How many people have been hurt or killed in those tunnels from such negligence?

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