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Accidents Point Up Dangers of Rail Transit

Opinion Editorial
February 16, 2005

The recent Los Angeles commuter train disaster that killed eleven people has brought national attention to the safety problems inherent in most rail transit lines. Yet the Los Angeles tragedy is only one of many recent rail accidents.

Colorado residents are probably aware that on January 29, a Denver light-rail train collided with an ambulance, seriously injuring the two paramedics on board. There was no word as to the fate of the person they were trying to reach. The accident caused the train to derail and smash a storefront, injuring several other people. You can read about this and see photos.

Just a few days before, on January 26, Houston’s 7.5-mile “wham-bam tram” had its 75th collision with an automobile in little more than a year of operation, and then, within two days, was involved in two more accidents. Houston’s light-rail has had accidents an average of once every four days, which is an extreme case. But Houston’s transit agency has the same callous attitude found in other cities, blaming all but a handful of accidents on the drivers or pedestrians. (The January 26 accident was probably the rail operator’s fault, as witnesses agree the automobile had the green light.) Check out the “Wham-Bam Tram Ram Counter.

Earlier, on January 2nd, a Portland light-rail car smashed into and totaled a brand-new, $300,000 fire engine that was racing to someone’s rescue. Emergency vehicles in Portland have “signal priority” (meaning they automatically turn traffic signals in their favor), but the rail operator was unable to stop in time. Light rail also has signal priority, second only to emergency vehicles, so the operator probably expected the light to change to green. See if you can recognize any of what is left of the fire engine in the top right photo.

All of these accidents point out the key flaw in rail transit: It is simply not safe to put vehicles weighing hundreds of thousands of pounds in the same streets as pedestrians that weigh 100 to 200 pounds and vehicles that typically weigh a few thousand pounds. Heavy rail (subways and elevateds) avoid this flaw by being completely separated from autos and pedestrians, but are still vulnerable to suicides. Light rail, which often operates in the same streets as autos, and commuter trains, which often cross streets, simply are not safe.

Aside from being lighter than railcars (and thus less likely to do harm when they hit you), buses have the advantage that they can stop quicker. Rubber on pavement has more friction than steel wheel on steel rail, and the typical bus has many more square inches of wheel on pavement than a railcar. No matter how good the brakes on the railcar, it is physically impossible for it to stop as fast as a bus, for if the brakes are too good the wheels will just slide.

This is why light rail kills, on average, about three times as many people for every billion passenger miles it carries as buses. Commuter rail kills about twice as many people as buses. Only heavy rail is safer than buses, and then only if you don’t count suicides. Autos on city streets are a somewhat less dangerous than commuter rail, while autos on urban freeways a somewhat less dangerous than buses. Safe transportation thus means more freeways and buses, not more rail transit.

The recent Los Angeles crash was the result of a suicide attempt gone wrong. But this should not absolve the transit system. Why should we be happy to give depressed people another way to commit suicide? When natural gas was reformulated a few decades ago to make it less deadly, gas-related suicides declined by the thousands, but other forms of suicide did NOT increase to compensate. This indicates that proper design can reduce suicides and improper design can increase suicides by making them too easy.

Of course, the fact that the Los Angeles accident was caused by a suicide attempt doesn’t mean that Los Angeles trains are otherwise safe. In recent years Los Angeles’ commuter-rail trains have averaged nearly five times as many deaths per billion passenger miles as buses, giving them one of the worst safety records in the industry.
The record of Denver’s light-rail line is approximately the same.

The worst record, by the way, is held by Los Angeles light-rail lines, which kill nine times as many people per passenger mile as buses. Download “Great Rail Disasters” to see the safety record of almost every rail system in the country.

People who advocate light rail and commuter rail should ask themselves: Do they really want to be responsible for the extra deaths, not to mention property damage that their expensive transit systems will cause? Ironically, the people who favor rail transit are often the same people who insist that life is sacred and priceless.

On safety grounds alone, light-rail and commuter-rail lines should simply not be built.