Sunday, December 01, 2013


Tragic New York City train derailment shows that safety of rail cannot be guaranteed

by Larry Geller

Update: YouTube video taken Dec. 2 appended below (from NTSC website).

A really horrible train derailment in the Bronx today cost four lives and about 60 injured… pictures are all over the Internet showing the cars on their sides far from the tracks. Train derailments do happen occasionally around the world, and can be quite deadly.

Looking at tweeted images of scattered train cars, I was wondering what a derailment would look like should it happen in Honolulu. Would passenger-filled rail cars come tumbling down onto the houses, businesses and streets below?

When the battle for modality was still raging, early Civil Beat comments by a highly-paid pro-rail lobbyist insisted that a grade-level system was dangerous, citing accidents in Phoenix. It turned out that the problem was SUVs running red lights and smashing into the streetcars. In fact, of 52 collisions reported, all were the fault of drivers. I suspect that by now they’ve learned to pay a bit more attention.

I sent out a flock of emails and checked websites where I could, to see if the lobbyist’s warning was accurate. It wasn’t. Yes, there are collisions, but we don’t ban buses because they have collisions occasionally, do we. Most of the streetcar systems were quite safe, and Melbourne, Australia responded to me directing me to data on their website that supported that. Unlike our Oahu transit leaders who fail (for example) to do anything about King Street deathtrap crosswalks, Melbourne had a program in place to minimize incidents. Their street-level system was quite mature and well-managed.

At the same time, the Washington Metro was experiencing a shockingly high fatality rate. The NTSB had four investigations open simultaneously. See: Rail accidents and safety debate (3/5/2010). In that article I lamented that maintenance is notably lax in Honolulu pretty much wherever you look.

I’ll grant that the accident rate on rail in the sky will likely be less than street-level transit of any kind, but when it happens… as we saw in today’s news, the possibility of large-scale disaster confronts us.


Why does it matter who is at fault when an accident occurs with at grade rail systems. Over the past twenty years hundreds of people have been injured and killed by running into or getting run over by grade level rail. This will be avoided with the elevated rail system Honolulu is building. Not to mention grade level rail in Honolulu would take up lanes from the roads further adding to congestion. The rail accidents you refer to are generally caused by the drivers of those trains. We will be building a computer operated system which will eliminate human error.

Without saying anything about elevated systems or not, Old Diver gets one thing wrong in his comment. "The rail accidents you refer to are generally caused by the drivers of those trains." That's wrong, the drivers to blame are the drivers of the cars running red lights. The problem with level crossings are in the absolute majority of accidents or incidents, that someone didn't wait for the light to turn green. The one that didn't wait for the light to turn green is not the train driver, but rather a car driver or a pedestrian. I don't see the difference if you're waiting at a red light for a train or for other cars, you're supposed to wait. The computer operated system won't be more safe when it comes to people trying to do things that are wrong. If you really want to do something stupid you can outsmart the computer anytime you want.

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