Inevitably, the opening of a new urban light rail system, with all of its ceremony and civic pride, is shortly followed by collisions between trains and members of the public. The local community is unfamiliar with the new light rail system, its intersections and signaling of approaching trains. Unfortunate citizens think they can “beat the train” in their cars, or not pay careful attention while walking over or near train tracks.
The results are usually tragic and prompt citizen and governmental demands for improved safety protocols. System operators take great pains in their planning and implementation to avoid such incidents, and struggle to accept the fact that there is no perfect solution for entirely eliminating these collisions. Still, the quest for the safest operating environment is a primary concern for all light rail systems.
The larger issue of grade crossing safety is being studied at various levels, including the federal government. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is addressing the issue through the first-ever use of locomotive-mounted cameras to study highway-rail grade crossing safety and trespass prevention. The FRA is partnering with the North Carolina Department of Transportation and Norfolk Southern Railway in a $482,000 federally funded research project that will capture real-time data of actual collisions and trespass incidents. The research findings from this study will provide the industry with valuable safety data.
To gain a deeper understanding of grade crossing safety issues for light rail systems, METRO spoke with a number of system operators around the country to survey the latest developments and lessons learned.
Houston’s rite of passage
The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County’s METRORail, which opened in Houston on Jan. 1, 2004, has received a good deal of attention this year for its successes as well as its grade crossing safety challenges. In its first 11 months of service, the system performed successfully through a number of major events, including Super Bowl XXXVIII, the annual Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game.
In October, METRORail ridership set a new record high — an average of 32,941 weekday customer boardings. (The system projected 35,000 daily boardings by the end of the year.) These are impressive numbers given that the passenger volume nearly matches numbers not expected to be reached until 2020.
Unfortunately, with that success has also come a number of collisions. METRORail experienced 11 collisions in March 2004. Since that time, system management has implemented changes in its safety program, resulting in declining monthly accident statistics; there was only one accident in November. This accomplishment is all the more notable given that the number of trains on the line doubled during that period.
Invoking the 3 Es
For Tom Lambert, METRORail’s vice president and chief of police, safety improvements have been all about the “3 Es” — engineering, education and enforcement. Engineering deals with system design and technologies used in signage and signaling. Education focuses on getting the word out to drivers of private and commercial vehicles and pedestrians about how the grade crossings function and how the signaling works. Enforcement deals with law enforcement procedures for compliance with applicable motor vehicle and pedestrian laws and system regulations.
Back in the spring of 2004, when it became clear that METRORail was experiencing more collisions than originally predicted, Lambert and other executive managers decided to consult with the Texas Transportation Institute, an independent organization affiliated with Texas A&M University and based in College Station, Texas. The institute helped METRORail focus on a 2.5-mile stretch of track that had been the scene of several accidents.
METRORail reconfigured the traffic signal lights so that they now turn red for all traffic as trains pass. More signs and added markings to better direct traffic movement were also added. METRORail improved the “Train Approaching” signs to make them flash in addition to lighting up.
METRORail’s dedicated police force also has been empowered to more actively enforce applicable jaywalking and motor vehicle moving violation laws along the light rail line — issuing warnings and citations. As a result, accidents involving illegal turns have been almost eliminated.
Public education efforts have included mass distribution of safety literature and public service announcements in the local media. When the system opened in early 2004, an external agency was hired to conduct a series of TV commercials called “Stop, Look & Listen,” focusing on pedestrian and driver safety.
Brian Bochner, senior research engineer for the Texas Transportation Institute, believes following the 3 Es is essential for improving safety in any transportation mode. However, he believes the bigger picture for transportation system safety starts with fundamental issues of available resources.
A light rail system is obviously most vulnerable to safety problems at points of contact between trains, private and commercial vehicles and pedestrians, Bochner says. So, a system that minimizes these intersections of contact increases its safety quotient.
The root problem, however, is that in our increasingly congested urban environments with their expensive real estate, gaining clear right-of-way is becoming more challenging each year for planners of rail systems. “There are safety implications for every decision a transit agency makes,” Bochner says. “There are competing uses for land, limits on available space, traffic conditions, community and environmental impacts and cost implications that must be considered.”
What other systems are doing
While Houston’s light rail system has received much media attention this year, safety concerns are an ongoing reality for all light rail systems. Some transit agencies have tried new technologies to improve safety. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) in Los Angeles implemented experimental four-quadrant railroad crossing gates, replacing traditional two-gate systems with gates that cover all four quadrants of an intersection.
Here’s what’s worked for a few other transit agencies:
The Utah Transit Authority (UTA) installed medians wherever possible at crossings to prevent cars driving around gates when down, according to Ed Buchanan, UTA rail safety administrator. The agency installed grade crossing indicators for system operators to determine if gates are down and in place. All grade crossings are equipped with gates, lights and bells. In most intersections, there is a median gate as well as a street-side gate. Also, the agency installed gates behind sidewalks so that each sidewalk is blocked when the gates come down. All of these efforts have minimized train collisions, Buchanan says.
In Los Angeles County, the MTA has learned many lessons since opening its Blue Line light rail system in the early 1990s. As train lines have been added, safety conditions have improved. “The Gold Line has been in operation since July , and so far we have had only three minor incidents,” says Abdul Zohbi, rail systems safety manager. “All three were caused by vehicles that violated traffic laws.”
The MTA also lives by the 3 Es, Zohbi says. For engineering, the MTA uses the previously mentioned four-quadrant gates, pedestrian gates, swing gates and medians. For its enforcement efforts, Metro works closely with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and for the Blue Line uses its photo enforcement system. And for education, extensive campaigns target most of the population within a 5-mile radius of the system’s right-of-way. Local schools were given rail safety presentations. The MTA also produced 13 videos that were aired on local TV and cable channels.
Signal pre-emption helps
Niagara Frontier Transit Authority (NFTA) in Buffalo, N.Y., was one of the first light rail systems to go online in the country when it became fully operational in 1985. Although the trains run slower than most other light rail systems (about 15 mph at peak — the equipment restricts the maximum speed to 28 mph), there have been traffic collisions with motorists who overestimated their ability to “beat the train” at an intersection. One of the main design elements that has kept collisions to a minimum is traffic signal pre-emption, according to NFTA spokesman C. Douglas Hartmayer.
NFTA worked out the signal pre-emption system with city authorities, giving the trains green lights down the route. In addition to the positive safety implications, it also expedites rail travel, Hartmayer says.