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Houston appears on track for 40 crashes in first year
Houston Chronicle ^ | January 28, 2004 | LUCAS WALL

Posted on 01/28/2004 5:44:33 AM PST by Dog Gone

Rail collisions worrisome

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."

TOPICS: News/Current Events; US: Texas
KEYWORDS: accidents; boondoggle; collisions; deathtrain; houston; houstondeathtrain; houstonrail; lightrail; metro; metrofailrail; metrorail; quagmire; rail; record; recordsetting; taxdollarsatwork; texas; transportation; whambamthankyoutram; worldrecord
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1 posted on 01/28/2004 5:44:34 AM PST by Dog Gone
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To: Dog Gone

They have been trying to push light rail service east of Nashville for about 10 years despite the fact that ALL surveys show that it will NEVER even come close to paying for itself.
2 posted on 01/28/2004 5:55:34 AM PST by Blood of Tyrants (Even if the government took all your earnings, you wouldn’t be, in its eyes, a slave.)
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To: Blood of Tyrants
The people who control Houston plan a 70 mile extension of this light rail line in the coming years. So we should expect about 400 cars a year to get demolished by the Death Trains.

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.

3 posted on 01/28/2004 6:01:07 AM PST by Dog Gone
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To: Dog Gone
Don't disagree with you about the economics of light rail systems, but....

A little Darwinian culling of the pool of drivers might not be such a bad thing.
4 posted on 01/28/2004 6:07:23 AM PST by Lonely NY Conservative
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To: Lonely NY Conservative
The first wreck involved a newsbabe for the local NBC television station. I got a kick out of that.
5 posted on 01/28/2004 6:11:57 AM PST by Dog Gone
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To: Dog Gone
I spent the last 4 months working in Houston and witessed the start-up of this debacle. It amazes me that any civil engineer would consider running a train through the middle of a large town, what with stop lights, crossing traffic etc.

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.

6 posted on 01/28/2004 6:12:36 AM PST by par4
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To: Dog Gone
Is it just me or is there a common theme to the accidents?
7 posted on 01/28/2004 6:13:23 AM PST by Bikers4Bush (Constitution party here I come. Write in Tancredo in 04'!)
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To: par4
My guess is that the elevated option was far too expensive.
8 posted on 01/28/2004 6:14:25 AM PST by Bikers4Bush (Constitution party here I come. Write in Tancredo in 04'!)
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To: Dog Gone
Yesterday the total went up to 11. I have a solution for them. Get rid of the @%*$! train. It was bad enough trying to figure out where you can turn downtown and they've just made it worse. Glad I live and work in the burbs.
9 posted on 01/28/2004 6:14:30 AM PST by girlscout
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People who are always railing against the light rail have limited vision.

The city of Houston desperately needs new traffic planning, which metro is trying to do. Their long term plan will improve the traffic in this city, but the short term will provide numerous headaches and constant bickering. A lot of this planning involves "social engineering" - basically, trying to infuse the inner loop with mid-to-hi-rise living, providing a more dense metroplex that can be services by short bus routes and rail. Houston is way to spread out. Anyone who lives here can attest to a typical day in traffic - it is absolutely horrendous.

I've lived here for 26 years. The new downtown renovation and street projects are great. I work downtown and adjust to the headaches because I know that streets can't be put in overnight. Everyone in this town just bitches, like a bunch of fricking sissies. Get over it. The streets are being completely ripped out, and not just paved over. This hasn't happened since the early 1900's. They are finding old railroad relics buried in the soil. The new streets are very nice, solid concrete, and will last 20+ years.

I'm an optimist and see a better future for Houston. Until then, I'll put up with the headaches and the stupid drivers...
10 posted on 01/28/2004 6:15:24 AM PST by blabs
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To: Dog Gone

11 posted on 01/28/2004 6:15:29 AM PST by Dog Anchor
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To: Bikers4Bush
Left turn in front of oncoming.... except the cagers are on the backside of the physics curve in this instance. :)
12 posted on 01/28/2004 6:16:14 AM PST by Tijeras_Slim (Come see the violence inherent in the system!)
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To: girlscout
And why have you not joined any Houston Area Texans gatherings?
13 posted on 01/28/2004 6:16:20 AM PST by Xenalyte (I may not agree with your bumper sticker, but I'll defend to the death your right to stick it)
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To: blabs
Yes, utopians who love social engineering and who live in the innercity love the concept.

The rest of the people in the greater metropolitan area get to pay for it, but receive no benefit.

14 posted on 01/28/2004 6:32:06 AM PST by Dog Gone
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To: Dog Gone
Including the commuters who are being taxed without representation.
15 posted on 01/28/2004 6:34:42 AM PST by Bikers4Bush (Constitution party here I come. Write in Tancredo in 04'!)
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To: Tijeras_Slim
16 posted on 01/28/2004 6:36:16 AM PST by Bikers4Bush (Constitution party here I come. Write in Tancredo in 04'!)
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To: Bikers4Bush
It is sorta sweet, ain't it?
17 posted on 01/28/2004 6:37:14 AM PST by Tijeras_Slim (Come see the violence inherent in the system!)
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To: Bikers4Bush
Illegal left hand turns...
18 posted on 01/28/2004 6:39:29 AM PST by mewzilla
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To: Tijeras_Slim
Cracks me up.
19 posted on 01/28/2004 6:44:35 AM PST by Bikers4Bush (Constitution party here I come. Write in Tancredo in 04'!)
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To: Blood of Tyrants
and it goes right past the airport, the one place where it might do some good, without stopping
20 posted on 01/28/2004 6:47:44 AM PST by babble-on
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