It’s an ugly fact: Mixing light-rail trains with cars, bicycles and pedestrians on city streets will result in collisions and injuries.
“Statistically, at some point in time, there will be an accident, and someone’s going to get hurt,” said Jim Price, Hampton Roads Transit rail operations officer.
In the most recent statistics available, from 1999 to 2008, an average of 14 people per year were killed in light-rail crashes on 35 systems across the country, and nearly 300 were injured, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
For most new light-rail systems, collisions are more frequent at the beginning as everyone adjusts.
“It’s a changed condition, a quiet train operating in the street right-of-way, and there needs to be a higher level of awareness,” said John Sedlak, executive vice president of Houston METRO, which had an abundance of wrecks its first year.
The challenge for Hampton Roads Transit and the city is to make The Tide as safe as possible when it opens Aug. 19, to reduce the likelihood of accidents and to educate people about risky behavior around the rail line.
That has meant, at times, taking unpopular measures. They included adding to an already bloated budget about $14.5 million of safety enhancements, delaying the opening of the system multiple times, adopting rigorous operator screening that includes extended medical checks, and airing jarring television spots that show teenagers and mothers getting struck by trains.
But HRT and other transit officials that operate light rail say there’s little that can be done to control how people act around the trains. A 2009 Federal Transit Administration report shows that more than 90 percent of fatalities and injuries in light-rail collisions over the previous five years were caused by “public behavior.”
“There’s a wide range of bad habits out there, egregious bad habits,” Price observed after a few weeks of test runs through downtown. “Something happens pretty much every day.”
He said operators regularly spot cars running red lights, making illegal turns, and stopping on the tracks. Last month, a bicyclist hit the side of a moving train at a crossing near the corner of York and Botetourt streets. The biker, who was wearing headphones, was not injured and the train was not damaged.
“Our operators, acting defensively, have saved every case,” Price said. “In reality, it’s better it’s happening now during training: The more stupidity now, the better.
“Normal bad behavior can be anticipated; it’s the bizarre bad behavior that’s frightening.”
That bizarre behavior has included a car that backed out of a parking garage onto the tracks, a motorist driving in the wrong direction on a street, and a truck that crossed tracks dedicated only to rail coming dangerously close to the electrified wires overhead.
“In spite of our best efforts, not every incident is going to be avoided,” said Philip Shucet, HRT president and CEO.
Houston learned that lesson early on. In the first year of operation for its starter line in 2004, there were 68 accidents. Like The Tide, the trains run on city streets in the business district.
“Very few of these were preventable, where our operator could have prevented the accident,” Sedlak said. He said most were caused by “improper movements” by motorists, pedestrians or bicyclists – mostly illegal left turns and red-light running.
So transit officials took steps to reduce accidents.
Changes were made to signal timing and signs, including adding red flashing lights in the pavement when traffic signals turn red and outlining traffic signs in red neon when lights turned red. Police enforcement of traffic laws was ramped up. And new safety messages were rolled out, including wrapping one light-rail vehicle in a bold red color with a stoplight and the message: “Stop. Think.”
The result: Accidents were cut in half, Sedlak said.
“The emphasis has to be placed on public outreach,” said Martin Schroe-der, chief engineer for the American Public Transportation Association. “Cities around the country have experienced growing pains at the beginning, a result of not optimizing the traffic system to alert drivers to the hazards and of the public not being aware. Once a city gets familiar with it, things get a lot better.”
In Norfolk, Shucet said, HRT has enhanced the safety of The Tide beyond what was originally planned.
Safety systems were stripped from the project when HRT’s leaders at the time cut the budget to bring the overall cost within a range that would qualify for federal funding.
Safety systems have been added back to the project, plus more. It includes a complex network of computer systems, communications equipment, radar detectors, signals and gates that are integrated so that traffic stops, bells sound and gates lower when a train passes an intersection.
Other features are a high-tech control center that tracks all train movements and the functioning of the safety system, street signs that warn of approaching trains, and speed bumps, posts and chains to keep traffic off the train guideway.
“None of these safety systems were part of the original project,” said Shucet. “That ought to scare the hell out of you. It does me.”
Norfolk’s original light-rail system was approved for funding by the Federal Transit Administration despite the lack of a safety system because the agency has no authority to dictate or enforce safety standards. Recent efforts in Congress to legislate safety authority have failed.
“While transit is a safe way to travel, we still see too many preventable accidents, including fatal accidents,” FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff said. “We believe that federal safety oversight by the Federal Transit Administration will help ensure that transit remains safe as our systems age and experienced employees retire in increasing numbers.”
Transit agencies decide whether to add or upgrade safety measures based mainly on experiences at other light-rail systems and industry recommendations.
For example, after considering industry data on train collisions, HRT added a sleep apnea test for drivers.
And there will be no quiet zones on The Tide. Last month, a 15-year-old girl was killed after stepping in front of a light-rail train in Salt Lake City in a section of track designed as a quiet zone, where the train could not sound its whistles or bells at the request of the surrounding neighborhood.
Price said The Tide’s whistles and bells are on the loudest setting, except at the walk-up neighborhood station at Ingleside.
In Norfolk, in preparation for the opening, trains started running last week on their regular schedule, as frequently as every eight to 10 minutes at peak hours.
During this training and testing period, rail operators are reporting what they observe along the route so all operators are aware of where pedestrians tend to cross inappropriately or where motorists tend to run red lights.
Operators have practiced sudden stops and other emergencies. They’ve been drilled on fires, derailments, bombs and hostage situations.
Among the chief worries is the number of sections of roadway downtown that allow left turns over train tracks. Left turns onto tracks are considered the most common safety problem in light-rail systems, according to industry research. For example, they’ve accounted for about 60 percent of accidents in San Jose and Sacramento and 40 percent in Portland.
Norfolk has about a dozen left-turn areas across tracks. To ensure they’re safe, signs light up, indicating that turns are prohibited when a train is approaching.
If there is an accident, the trains are equipped with video cameras and black box recorders.
“Operating a train is days, weeks, months of boredom, punctuated by moments of absolute terror,” Price said. “Those are your defining moments.”
Debbie Messina, (757) 446-2588, email@example.com