Skip to comments.Houston appears on track for 40 crashes in first year
Posted on 01/28/2004 5:44:33 AM PST by Dog Gone
The crash rate between MetroRail trains and vehicles has far exceeded that of other cities with new rail lines, prompting Metro officials Tuesday to consider more safety modifications.
Since Friday, there have been three crashes involving Metropolitan Transit Authority light rail trains, including incidents Monday and Tuesday where drivers made illegal left turns.
A collision Tuesday marked the 10th wreck since testing began in the fall. Five occurred during the testing phase and five more have taken place since passenger service commenced Jan. 1.
Those numbers are much higher than recent experiences in Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, the two cities before Houston to open light rail segments.
In Los Angeles, there have been two crashes since the Gold Line between downtown and Pasadena opened in June, said Ed Scannell, a spokesman for that county's Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
In Salt Lake City, there was one crash involving a TRAX train and a vehicle during the testing phase of the Medical Center extension and zero incidents since passenger service began in September, said Marti Money, a Utah Transit Authority spokeswoman.
It is difficult to compare light rail systems among cities because they have different lengths, number of intersections crossed and traffic conditions. But it does appear Houston is on its way to eclipsing other cities when it comes to the number of cars hitting trains.
At this pace, the Bayou City is on track for 40 light rail collisions in the first year of the 7 1/2-mile Main Street line. That would match the total of the Blue Line that connects Los Angeles and Long Beach, which has averaged 42 collisions between trains and vehicles during 13 years of operation. The Blue Line, however, is three times as long as the Main Street line here.
In Dallas, the only other Texas city with a light rail transit system, there were 19 crashes involving trains for the first year and a half after Dallas Area Rapid Transit opened its first line in June 1996. Morgan Lyons, Dallas Area Rapid Transit spokesman, said his system experienced 17 collisions between trains and vehicles last year.
Denver averages about 20 vehicles hitting light rail trains per year, according to statistics provided by the Regional Transportation District.
Some Houston drivers are concerned about the escalating numbers here.
"I am terrified of the thing," said Philip Brown. "It's dangerous. I am extra careful driving around this."
Brown, who used the drive-through Tuesday afternoon at Whitney bank near Fannin and Southmore, said he's worked in the area for more than 20 years and isn't used to trains coming down the street. He was surprised there's no standard railroad-crossing gate at the bank's driveway onto Fannin, only a sign that lights up when a train approaches and two yellow lights that blink.
Monday's collision occurred at Fannin and Southmore, which is in the Museum District. A video aboard the Metro train shows Traci Champine turning left from the center lane of Fannin onto Southmore, smacking into the train. A sign at that intersection lights up indicating no left turns are permitted when trains are approaching.
Transit officials say nothing could have prevented Tuesday's crash. Not only did Quyen Lu ignore two "no left turn" signs, said Metro Police Chief Tom Lambert, he failed to yield while making the turn and drove straight into the train's path.
Lambert and other transit authority executives said, however, they have asked their engineers to examine signals in the Museum District, where turns are generally permitted except when signs illuminate. Several drivers complained Tuesday that the illuminated signs can be hard to see, especially when the sun is shining bright. Also, the signs are positioned over the center lane, not the left lane where motorists are supposed to turn from.
John Sedlak, Metro's vice president in charge of engineering, said his staff will consider modifying the signal system to turn traffic signals red in every direction when a train approaches. Engineers did not set the system that way because they wanted to keep traffic moving, he said. But, Sedlak added, a change might be necessary to alleviate some of the safety concerns.
Drivers might respond better to a red light than an illuminated "no left turn" sign, he said. A decision on any signal changes is expected within a week.
"We were looking to make sure we were balancing traffic movements with transit movements," he said. "It may be that we need to give transit an additional priority because of these illegal movements that continue to occur."
With some 100,000 Super Bowl visitors descending on the city this week, some Houstonians are concerned about the impact train crashes will have on the city's image. Metro is installing a pedestrian barricade to safeguard Super Bowl partiers from the trains in the Main Event zone downtown this weekend and there is a plan to turn trains back if crowds compromise the ability to safely operate.
Since the first train-car crash Nov. 19, the transit authority has added additional signs along the rail line, put yellow reflectors next to the train tracks, and run TV commercials promoting safety, among other measures.
Matt Noll of Clear Lake, buying flowers with his fiancee, Donna Bright, Tuesday in the Museum District, said relatives in Pennsylvania have mentioned hearing about the light rail troubles in Super Bowl news reports.
Noll said Metro should install a guardrail between the train tracks and traffic lanes. Only small white humps mark the barrier now.
Bright said simply assuming all drivers will pay proper attention to the new transit mode is presumptuous. She acknowledged just having inadvertently made an illegal left turn herself while trying to find the Flower Garden.
"I mean, gosh, I turned right in here and I wasn't supposed to," she said. "If you live right here, then sure you could pay more attention, but if you don't, then you don't know any better."
And it will do nothing to alleviate the real traffic problem, which is suburban residents commuting to work. This megabillion fiasco will serve only the core of the city.
If the politicians had made this train an elevated rail like that in parts of the NYC boroughs and Chicago, where the train runs over the street, all these traffic accidents might have been prevented.
The rest of the people in the greater metropolitan area get to pay for it, but receive no benefit.