Skip to comments.A Streetcar Named Disaster
Posted on 03/07/2004 5:02:00 PM PST by PeaceBeWithYou
After witnessing a weekend of self-congratulatory festivities marking the January 1st debut of Houstons MetroRail transit system, the hometown newspapers editorial board could hardly contain its exuberance. Viewed from any angle, opined the Houston Chronicle, the kickoff celebrations were a sure sign of good things to come. To the board, itself a merciless campaigner for rail, the roughly 15,000 people in attendance suggested that a large helping of crow was in order for transit critics. Reports from Houston spread quickly causing the Arizona Republics editorial page to gloat critics rail at light rail to no avail. After all, what worked for Houston would surely also work for Phoenix. An Austin-based advocacy group went even further, hailing their favored transit modes enthusiastic acceptance by the public though also neglecting the role free tickets played in attracting inaugural weekend riders.
Declarations of this sort typified proponent reactions to the controversial light rail commuter train a system that recently consumed $340 million of Houstons congestion relief funds. Despite the laudatory responses, an ever-growing volume of evidence plays testament to a certainty for Houston: MetroRail may quickly become an anchor around the neck of the citys transportation system rather than the traffic relief measure of its original intent.
The problems to date are widespread and growing. Before it even opened MetroRail already boasted the dubious record of five automobile-train collisions in barely a month of test runs, thus relegating transit police to blocking duty along the tracks for opening weekend lest another accident replace rail itself as the top evening news story. Constant technical glitches and another ten automobile-train collisions since service began have placed MetroRail on target for becoming the most accident-prone transit system in the nation.
Far from attaining public acceptance, the flow of passengers at the rail stations came to a crashing halt on Monday morning after the festivities. The first paying train departed with only a crew of reporters, did not gain any passengers until the third station, and remained sparsely ridden for the entire day. Aside from a brief Super-Bowl induced rider surge in early February, not much has changed since day one of paid services. Transit officials recently reported that the main parking lot serving their system has averaged only one-fifth capacity on workdays a figure that is similarly reflected in dismal ridership totals for its first month of operation.
According to official reports from MetroRail, a total of 558,257 passengers road on the train during the month of January. Though rail proponents claimed the figures were proof of success, a closer examination reveals that those claims are premature. The figures for January include over 15,000 boardings during the inaugural weekend when free tickets provided an incentive for curious passengers. They also include inflated numbers from pre-Super Bowl festivities on January 29th through 31st when light rail carried about 120,000 passengers for game related events. Accounting for those two extraneous events that induced non-routine ridership surges and the actual monthly boarding figure would be something closer to 425,000 total or about 14,000 round trips (and thus only 7,000 passengers) a day. Either way, MetroRails current ridership figures, if sustained, put it on pace to carry somewhere between 5.1 and 6.7 million passengers for 2004 only half of the 10 to 13 million originally estimated by some rail proponents. Even worse, MetroRails $23.5 million annual operating costs indicate that even with the overly optimistic 13 million passenger figure the system will still be $10 million in the hole at the current $1 fare. Barring a quick turnaround from the current pace, that figure may to fall over $18 million short from simply recovering its annual operating costs at the fare box, all to be taken from public monies.
As if its financial boondoggle status were not bad enough, light rails disastrous safety record has become something of a legend in Houston. Affectionately dubbed the Wham-Bam-Tram by local conservative activists, light rail has lived up to its nickname. A summary of the collisions and glitches to date reveals the extent of this growing problem:
CRASH 1: November 19, 2003 Light rail is involved in its first accident, hitting the fender of an SUV as it turned across the tracks.While transit backers dismiss light rails shortcomings as temporary adaptation problems for commuters, the issue is substantially more fundamental. MetroRails tribulations derive almost entirely from an inherent yet neglected system design flaw: the operation of trains in mixed traffic. Whereas popular transit systems such as the Washington D.C. METRO use grade-separated tracks that do not intersect vehicular lanes, MetroRail runs in the middle of a major thoroughfare along side and in between automobiles. This design is something akin to placing 21st century bullet trains on 19th century trolley tracks and attempting to operate them in a pattern that requires stopping every six blocks.
CRASH 2: December 16, 2003 Train hits the bumper of a car as it pulls out of a driveway on Fannin at Southmore.
CRASH 3: December 19, 2003 MetroRail collides with a pickup truck turning left from Main at Alabama. A light rail crash safety drill was occurring a few blocks away at the time of the accident.
CRASH 4: December 20, 2003 Light rail crashes into a Ford Explorer making a left turn from Fannin at John Freeman in the Medical Center.
CRASH 5: December 30, 2003 MetroRail collides with a passenger car exiting a private driveway along the tracks on Fannin.
CRASH 6: January 9, 2004 Light rail collides with a passenger car turning left at Fannin and Binz. The driver was apparently confused over the difficult to read lighted no-turn signs along the route.
CRASH 7: January 19, 2004 A light rail train collides with a suburban attempting to make a left turn off of Fannin at Dryden. The intersection contains notoriously confusing turning lane signs switch to no-turn signs when a train is present.
CRASH 8: January 23, 2004 A light rail train obliterates a Union Pacific maintenance truck and severely injures its driver on a test track that runs parallel to the UP track. The train involved in the collision was also traveling at approximately 60 mph on a test run a speed not even remotely approached during the stop-and-go operations of street use that average just over 12 mph.
CRASH 9: January 26, 2004 MetroRail collides with a passenger car attempting to make a left turn off of Fannin at Southmore in the Museum District
CRASH 10: January 27, 2004 Light rail hits a Toyota minivan attempting to turn left on McGowen from Main.
CRASH 11: February 5, 2004 A train collides with an automobile turning left off of Fannin at Dryden in the Medical Center. This intersection is the sight of an earlier accident where confusing lighted no-turn signs may have contributed to the crash.
CRASH 12: February 15, 2004 MetroRail hits a flatbed truck alleged to have run a light while crossing Pierce near downtown.
CRASH 13: February 19, 2004 Light rail involved in an accident with an armored car pulling out of a bank parking lot near Fannin and Southmore
CRASH 14: February 21, 2004 Train collides with a van turning left at Fannin and Montrose.
CRASH 15: February 24, 2004 Train crashes into a car turning left at Fannin and Dryden the third collision to date near this intersection.
Electricity Failure 1: January 4, 2004 A power failure near Reliant Park shuts down the light rail system in its vicinity forcing riders to leave the stalled trains through emergency exits after 18 minutes without air conditioning. The power failure exposed another design flaw in the system by shutting down crossing gates along roadways for the duration of the outage. The result: when MetroRail ceases to move so does everyone else in a car nearby. A frustrated driver and a Metro bus reportedly broke through two of the gates during the outage.
Electricity Failure 2: January 17, 2004 A small fire at a power station shuts down a lengthy segment of the light rail system for over an hour and a half. Stranded passengers had to be carried by bus to their destinations
Electricity Failure 3: February 6, 2004 A delivery truck reportedly clipped one of the relatively low-hanging high voltage trolley cables between the Wheeler and Rice stations. Light rail obtains its power from a modern day version of a troller a device invented in the 1880s that makes electrical contact with open wires suspended overhead. The accident happened at about 9:30 AM and took until 1:30 PM to be repaired. Reports from the scene indicate that it may have taken up to half an hour for repair crews to respond to the downed wire.
Super Bowl Shutdown: January 29-February 1, 2004 Light rail was originally sold to Houstonians under the claim that it would help carry passengers with ease at major sporting events such as the Super Bowl, yet during the events festivities many streets proved too crowded to safely operate the trains. As a result transit officials shut down large segments of the light rail line into downtown, leaving thousands without an easy access to transportation. Persons trying to enter and exit downtown had to wait up to two hours despite the trips length of only a few miles.
As with streetcars, MetroRails constant stopping prevents trains from completing a journey in a reasonably efficient time. The current 7.5 mile journey takes 35 minutes at an average of 12.8 mph, or roughly the top speed of a Segway Scooter. Three Chronicle reporters recently experienced this flaw the hard way by timing the train against busses and automobiles. MetroRail runs 50% slower than both alternatives and also costs more when parking and fares are considered all facts that leave little room for wonder about the systems dismal ridership.
The fifteen accidents to date stem in large part from automobile driver error yet one cannot help but question that their frequency, and thus some culpability, results from a common sense failure in rail design. This circumstance may be demonstrated through a simple comparison. Few will deny that a cliff-side highway with no guardrails poses a danger in its own right to drivers who steer off the road and into the ocean below. Though the error in steering is itself a fault of the driver, the absence of a cliff-side guardrail provides a substantial contributing factor to the accident. The proximate cause for each accident is a negligent design that makes that particular stretch of road accident-prone and an abnormally high frequency of accidents would provide more than ample testament to that design flaw.
Houstons at-grade light rail exhibits its own abnormally high accident rate and that alone, even with driver error, is cause to seriously reexamine the systems design. Though light rail supporters, such as the militant smart growthers at Austins Light Rail Now!, tend to dismiss their favored transit systems inherent hazard to traffic as the product of Houston having the nations worst drivers (after all, no wrong could ever be committed by a transit system in their minds), the real issue at hand is once again the fundamentally bad idea behind light rail itself: at-grade mixed traffic operations. Putting a full sized passenger train in the middle of vehicular traffic makes about as much sense as installing a lane of vehicular traffic down the toy aisle at Wal-Mart. It has about as much logic to it as trying to land passenger jetliners on an interstate or conducting navy war exercises at a popular snorkeling spot. All of these situations create inherently dangerous conditions for users who are patently ill-suited for simultaneous interactions. Since the problem stems from design, simply writing tickets every time somebody gets hurt and simply sticking an oversized deer-whistle-for-humans on the front of a train will never lessen accident frequency.
Similar problems will continue to impede the success of MetroRail so long as transit advocates refuse to reevaluate their systems design. At the unfortunate insistence of these same persons and their corporate cronies who profit from transit construction contracts, Houston voters narrowly approved a substantial light rail expansion before having an opportunity to see phase one in action. An opportunity, though small, presently exists to achieve this end: separate the grade for any and all expansions of MetroRail and take passenger trains off the streets. Instead of bestowing unearned and premature declarations of success on the new system, officials must come to grip with the fact that fundamental flaws exist and correct for them before a 7.5 mile boondoggle in downtown becomes a 60 mile folly for the entire Houston region.
More roads = less traffic, less pollution, at far less cost.
1 time ping to a few Houston Area FReepers.
I have a surprise coming soon for all you METRORail fans!
As always, a FReep mail will get you on or off this Houston and Texas topics ping list.
I'm sure it was the SUV's fault.
Courtesy of Action America.
And government/media loved it!!
Up to $18Million a year from taxpayers for operating the thing. Thats $2,571 a year, to pay for their gasoline I guess....
YUP. These 7,000 people could be given very nice cars for the same price.
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