Friday, March 05, 2010


Rail accidents and safety debate

by Larry Geller

There is some good discussion raging over on Ian Lind’s blog on the subject of grade-level or elevated transit. Have a look, and check also for earlier articles.

You’ll find a dispute over the accident rate of elevated vs. grade level rail several weeks ago. I also wrote an article here.

The high accident rate that the grade-level system in Phoenix, Arizona, has experienced is supposed to demonstrate what Honolulu might look forward to should it move to a grade-level system. An Advertiser story Phoenix rail faces a challenging 2nd year (2/22/2010), has fed the fires on and off the blogs. It begins:

On Dec. 27, 2008, Metro opened on time and on budget. Over the next 12 months, the $1.4 billion system carried an average of nearly 35,000 passengers a day, 34 percent over estimates. At the same time, Metro struggled to collect fares and averaged almost a collision a week, causing lingering doubts about light rail's safety.

This year, a new chief executive officer from Portland, Ore., arrives to oversee a system that has already laid off train operators, trimmed support staff and postponed expansions, some indefinitely, to make ends meet.

A collision a week… yikes. Reading further, though, the article explains that the problem is SUVs running red lights and smashing into the rail cars.

Phoenix’s system is brand new. It’s only a year old. The SUV drivers will either learn not to run red lights or be eliminated if they continue, at the rate of about one red-light running SUV driver each week. The train will always be the winner. As time goes on, fewer SUVs will collide with trains, they will learn one way or the other.

I’m not too sure what lesson the Phoenix experience holds for Honolulu. We have an ample supply of red-light runners, so who knows. Our police don’t really bother to enforce the law, so it could be a setup for a future accident situation. The problem would not be that grade-level trains are dangerous, but that we don’t believe in enforcement of safety laws in Honolulu.

In a few years the Phoenix accident rate should decrease, even if by natural selection. Phoenix will be fine.

Another article by the same author has more detail. The last line in this snip says it all:

Of the 52 crashes logged last year - an average of one a week since the $1.4 billion system opened in December 2008 - 23 have been in downtown Phoenix. Of those, 17 involved right turns along a few blocks of Washington and Jefferson streets.

Metro recorded five crashes at just one corner: Jefferson and First streets.

None of the crashes was fatal.

Phoenix police Lt. Adrian Ruiz says most downtown accidents happen because drivers get confused by unfamiliar streets and because Phoenix drivers have a bad habit of running red lights.

"I see people every day who disregard the no-left-, no-right-turn-on-red signals," said Ruiz, who runs the department's transit bureau. "Drivers in Arizona are used to seeing where they have to go. . . . They get impatient."

Many of the downtown Phoenix crashes arise from cars making right turns across the tracks. A red arrow prohibits the maneuver, but split-second instincts and years of conditioning tell drivers it is OK to turn right on red.

Phoenix-area drivers are still making mistakes. Police have blamed all 52 crashes involving trains on motorists, not rail operators.

This article continues to describe measures that the Phoenix system is using to help reduce accidents, and says that they are actually fewer than was feared. There are also a couple of interesting statistics as well, for example, that 70.4% of drivers involved in those Phoenix-area accidents were men.

Just to get some contrast, I asked the transit system operators in Portland, OR and Melbourne, Australia about their accident rate. Portland is still pending, but Melbourne sent some detailed statistics. Actually, they make the numbers very visible on a website.

I chose Portland because it has evolved spectacularly recently, after a long history of surface transit (see video here).

Melbourne is also very mature. I visited many times in a previous life, staying near St. Kilda Park and taking the tram into town. My impression was that they had a very well-integrated system, and so I was curious about the accident rate. They also have heavy rail, light rail, and a bus system.

PTSV [Public Transport Safety Victoria] publishes the report 'Statistics @ a Glance' that incorporates the data reported to PTSV from accredited train, tram and bus operators. The report is updated on a monthly basis and data adjusted to reflect new information received during the reporting period.

The latest report is here (pdf). I won’t snip from it, have a look. There are convenient graphs that summarize the accident rate.

What I took away from this report is that the accident rate in Melbourne is very low overall (though further analysis would be needed, for example, to take into account passenger loads). All systems had incidents. Heavy rail seems to have suffered a bit in the January heat. They track derailments and rail issues as well as accidents.

As to heavy rail, I don’t know how to make a valid comparison. I’ll point you to this Washington Post story, Safety, budget woes threaten to consume Metro (2/21/2010) which begins:

Washington's Metro system, once a national model for urban transit systems, has deteriorated so badly that the National Transportation Safety Board plans to use a hearing this week into the June 22 crash that killed nine people and injured 80 as a case study for the adequacy of state and federal oversight at subways across the country.

The most sobering manifestation of Metro's decline is a series of fatal accidents over the past seven months. Since the crash on the Red Line, four workers have been killed on the tracks and a subcontractor was electrocuted while working at a bus garage.

Metro, which opened in 1976, has earned an embarrassing distinction.

"No one can recall another time when the NTSB has had four open investigations involving a single transit system," NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said. "When we see numerous accidents in a relatively short period of time, we want to determine what, if any, common elements there are that may need to be addressed."

Some of the discussion on the blogs in Honolulu is that we let things deteriorate. The Washington Metro experience may suggest what we could expect if we can’t change our habits.

Do these articles lead to conclusions? I think so, but as I write this, I cringe waiting for hired gun Doug Carlson to pounce on whatever I say. Yeah, that’s the level of discussion we have in Honolulu.

I think it’s safe to conclude that Honolulu may experience some accidents unless we deal with our own red-light runners, should we somehow end up with a grade-level system. We might also conclude that an elevated system could indeed have a high accident rate, depending on design and how well it is maintained. Either scenario depends on whether we can change long-ingrained habits.

As to discussion on the issues, we’ve not been allowed to plan our own communities or transit system from the beginning, the way cities such as Portland have done.

Developers and politicians are forcing a system down our throats that will be profitable for them and costly for us. Whether or not there are accidents is of no concern to them. In fact, those rich developers will not be riding the rail, nor will Governor Mufi. The accidents will be ours to argue over.

This is how a banana republic plans, and we’ll likely get what a banana republic gets.

Which reminds me, it may be time to consult the expert on banana republics. So I’ll be off to the zoo shortly, to see how Rusti the Orangutan is doing in his gubernatorial campaign and see what he has to say about transit. After all, he could inherit this mess if he wins in November.

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Considering Hawai'i's maintainance record on everything, it is inconceivable that the idea of a rail project should continue.

I read this article with great interest.Can I suggest you read the recent Auditor Generals for Victoria Australia into the Management of Level Crossing Safety.It may alter you impression of the PTSV satistics.

I would also like to bring to your attention of an Australian design for level crossing safety

I believe in this day and age, the culture of blaming motorist for level crossing incidents must stop. The rail companies have a Duty of Care to safe guard the general public from RISKS associated with their profit making. These risks would not be allowed in any other industry.

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