Monday, September 11, 2006

Railway Safety I: Cheap and Simple Measures

Last wednesday I was home from work sick, but feeling a bit better in the afternoon, decided to go shopping with my family. From the Woodside Road overpass I noticed a few trains backed up in the Redwood Junction yard, and made a mental note that it was a good day to be out sick, since there seemed to be "trouble on the line".

The trouble turned out to be a grade crossing accident, in which an ice-cream vendor rode his tricycle ice-cream/elados cart around lowered crossing arms, and was hit and killed by a train. Typically between one and two dozen people are killed by CalTrain each year. Strictly speaking, railroad crossings are very safe. If you go when you're supposed to, you'll be fine--with considerably more certainty than you can say that about crossing a busy street. With almost no exceptions, people hit by trains either wanted to be, or were being incredibly stupid.

When these things happen, transit riders and railway boosters have a tendency to mutter cynically about Darwin awards, but these lives have value, and anyone who likes trains should be concerned with making them a safe part of the environment, even if that means protecting people from themselves. And there are reasons to pay attention to this problem beyond the purely humanitarian. First of all, let me tell you that as a passenger, these accidents can really mess up your day, both in terms of your schedule and mood. Second, we should have some sympathy for the crews that have to deal with them; consider that: an Engineer is likely to kill someone within their first year on the job, and they say that suicides often make eye contact just before impact (yikes!); conductors, on the other hand, get the job of walking the length of the train to find the victim. Finally: the perceived danger of trains is a major political obsticle to extending rail transit.

Complete grade separation is the ultimate solution to this problem, but on obscenely expensive one. If we make it a requirement for new transit projects, we run the risk of turning worthwhile simple projects into expensive boondoggles, choosing suboptimal routes to avoid expense, or killing them altogether. BART, which must be 100% grade separated because of its third-rail electrification and automatic train control, provides several good examples from recent or proposed extensions:

  • SFO: Although the line was built using an existing railroad grade, the need for grade separation meant that it was tunnelled under this right-of-way the whole difference, at a cost of $1.5 billion. The rather lower-than-predicted ridership makes this heavy investment look like a foolish one. For comparison, Los Angeles' new Orange Line busway was also built recycling an old railway right-of-way, for about a third the cost of BART's SFO extension, has about the same daily ridership, and is considered a resounding success.
  • San Jose: The cost of this line, $6 billion (the VTA and the Merc keep saying 4, but the FTA estimated 6, and I figure when it comes to public works projects, you should take the highest estimate and then add some), has just about killed it. It's not like there are any geographical barriers between Fremont and San Jose; in fact, there are already several railways between them. The expense of this project is purely due to the requirement that the line be elevated or tunnelled the entire distance.
  • Livermore: BART gets to the edge of Livermore, and ends with a station in the 580 median. It would be nice to extend it downtown, where it could connect with ACE and a few people might actually live within walking distance of the station, but locals doesn't want elevated tracks and the idea of building a subway in Livermore is just silly. Likely the line will be extended farther east, in the conveniently grade-separated but inconveniently located freeway median, competing with ACE instead of connecting with it.
I'd rather see grade separation as an incremental, long-term goal. After all, getting trains up and running without it will still improve public safety overall, by getting people away from the carnage of freeway traffic. But in the meantime, there are a lot of steps transit agencies can take to improve safety, some of which are novel ideas, and some of which are already being implemented, though in my opinion not nearly fast enough:

  • Fence right-of-ways wherever possible: As a bare minimum, people should kept away from tracks in places where there is no legitimate reason to be on them.
  • Elimenate little-used cross-streets: People can drive a few extra blocks to the next street that goes through. If it's too far to walk, build a pedestrian bridge.
  • Red-light-cameras at all crossings: Snap a picture of anyone who drives around crossing gates, and send them a hefty ticket. Repeat offenders, or anyone stupid enough to do it in a truck, should be instantly and permanently stripped of their license.
  • Near-side-stopping: Arrange platforms so that trains stop to pick up passengers before crossing a street, not after. That way they'll naturally be moving more slowly, and under better control, as they cross, to the extent that less obnoxious warning devices than the usual bells and horns might be used.
  • Use less scary vehicles: I'm not kidding. People don't seem to kill themselves by jumping in front of light rail trains, probably because they don't look as lethal. And being less threatening, they'd likely be more welcome in the community.

Near-Side Stopping

These are cheap measures that could save a few lives. Of course, as trains increase in speed and number, there comes a time where the cost of grade separation becomes necessary. Even then, there are several approaches to choose from, with different tradeoffs of cost and effect on the environment. I'll look at some of these in a future post.

1 comment:

Dave said...

Good exposé on train crossings and accidents, or suicides. I saw a documentary about this once and seasoned engineers are often as shell-shocked apparently as if they'd been at war. One engineer interviewed refused to even talk about it. I always used to think I wouldn't have minded being a train engineer (back in the days before Linguistics) but I must say the probability of hitting someone and not being able to do anything about it is quite a deterrent to choosing that career.