They are big, lumbering, and can’t stop on a dime. And yet, in many cities around the world we mix them in with cars, trucks, buses, bikes, pedestrians and any other form of transportation. The “they” I’m referring to are rail vehicles, whether they be light rail, street car, trolley or commuter train.
In our business, we spend a lot of time teaching railroad. We have to. In today’s densely populated communities, few train systems get exclusive right of way, making an emphasis on safety paramount.
We make sure our operators and engineers understand signals, switches, grade crossings, derails, diamonds and frogs. We make sure they know the meaning of “high ball” and “line dragger.”
But there is more, much more, that we can do. How much time, for example, do we spend making sure they understand “Aim high in steering,” and “Leave yourself an out”?
Obviously, a lot is going to depend on individual factors such as traffic signal timing and design, signage, street markings, lighting, obstructions, interactivity (the relationship between people, cars and the alignment), and many other considerations unique to your system.
The good news is, yes, there are steps you can take from a training standpoint to help operators mitigate the possibility of what will statistically happen to each of them — a collision.
Know Your Turf
The first, and most obvious, is talk to those who do it everyday and see what they are doing right.
Operators with good operating records love to tell you what works for them. They know that at 4:44 p.m. the sun is going to reflect off the glass door of the bank across the street causing the traffic signal for cross traffic to not be visible for 1 minute and 30 seconds. During that period, there is a 92.4 percent likelihood that one or more cars are going to run through a red light.
Use that! Build it into your training program. That is great information that may save your authority countless hours of system service recovery time.
If you are a new system, the best advice is to know your system. Spend all the time you need to become intimately familiar with traffic patterns, people patterns, weather patterns, operator patterns and signal patterns.
The key word here is patterns. Know what vehicle drivers do when the train is not there. That is the best indicator of what drivers will do when the train is there. It will help you anticipate. It turns out, the majority of people do the same things at the same locations all the time.
When Metro starts a new class of rail operators, we walk the entire length of the alignment (in segments) to let them get a good look at how things operate when trains are, and are not in the area.
This is an opportunity to point out things like the sun reflecting off the bank glass door, and trees that could block signs, and traffic signal lights that disappear when the wind is blowing. We show them what an intersection looks like from a cross-traffic perspective so they understand what a car driver is looking at as they approach a crossing or intersection. In short, we give them the opportunity to “get the big picture.”
The Smith System
In the classroom, we teach a version of the Smith System. We drill into them the five keys of the Smith System:
- Aim high in steering.
- Get the big picture.
- Keep your eyes moving.
- Leave yourself an out.
- Make sure they see you.
Each operator gets a laminated card imprinted with these five keys. When they are operating a train in training, they are required on some trips to verbalize the things they see around them using the Smith System philosophy. As they operate, they have to tell the instructor that they see a bicyclist approaching the track from the left, there is a pedestrian running toward the train from the right, there is small child on the platform, there is a car sticking out over the limit line, and so on. They have to do the same on their certification run, as well as when they go through recertification. This helps them use it as a tool in daily operation.
In Houston, people make illegal left turns in front of the train (going the same direction). We have had many cases where a vehicle driver has passed a train, then made a left turn in front of it. Amazing! When it happens in the same place over and over, it becomes a pattern.
By knowing these patterns, we can instruct our operators to be extra vigilant, maybe wait three seconds before proceeding on a “fresh” signal, or watch for cars coming up on the right side of their train on a “stale” green traffic signal.
Light-Rail Vehicle Simulator
Metro’s light-rail simulator is a huge benefit for training. Strange but true, the simulator started with a cab mock up of our Siemens S70 LRVs. The cab-mock up was sent to us so that we could touch and feel the controls to make any necessary changes prior to receiving our first vehicle back in 2003. Well, what do you do with a full-size cab mock-up when it has already served its purpose? You build a room, buy five big-screen rear-projection televisions to place around the outside of the cab windshield, and call the company that built your bus simulator and ask if they’d be interested in developing a train simulator. Simple!
The simulator is a computer program that graphically displays a simulated view of our actual alignment. It allows us to develop scenarios that put as much or as little as we want into different situations. We can start operators on a normal trip, with no other traffic or pedestrians, to familiarize them with the alignment itself including signals, switches, stations and locations. As they develop their skills, we throw in ambulances, motorcycles, pedestrians and locusts. OK, there are no locusts. I just wanted to see if you were paying attention. The simulator gives us options that include settings for day, night, rain, snow, fog and dust.
Each new operator starts out on the simulator and is required to complete 10 hours of operation before graduating to a real LRV. Operators going through the recertification process also spend time on the simulator so the instructor can test them on troubleshooting techniques and other situations in a controlled environment.
Another benefit of the simulator is having the ability to recreate accidents. With video-equipped trains (forward-facing cameras), we are able to download the video from accidents and review them for a variety of purposes and use it to retrain operators.
The simulator has a separate module called a “rabbit car.” The rabbit is a console with a steering wheel, gas pedal, brakes and video monitor to simulate a car ... like in Drivers Ed in high school. The rabbit is a live interjection of a car driving in and out of any scenario.
After viewing the video from an accident, we can mimic the actions of the “other” vehicle by using the rabbit car console. For the operator of the train involved in the accident, we can show how things the driver of the car did should have been a red flag that a collision was about to occur.
What do you do if you don’t have the benefit of a rail simulator? Imagine. No, that’s the answer. Imagine! Let’s face it, being a train operator or engineer can be ... well, boring. Back and forth, up and down, down and up. Four, five, six trips a day. Over and over. Argh! What can you do as a transit operator to turn that time into productive time?
Teach the lost art of using their imagination. In this day of high-tech, mobile, electronic instant gratification, one of the best defensive driving tools is “what-if” scenarios. What would I do if
that car ran the red light? What would I do if that child on the platform broke away from her mother and started toward the edge of the platform? What would I do if the fire truck went around the crossing gate as I approached? What would I do if I came around this corner and saw an opposing train on my track?
The more operators go over scenarios like those, the quicker they will react when faced with a similar situation. Teach that to your operators. Ask them what they would do if a fire truck went around the gates in front of them. Then, have them call out their own “what-if” scenarios as they operate. The more they do it, the faster the answers come. When it does happen, the reaction becomes automatic.
There are other things you can do as a system to help your operators have a safe trip.
In Houston, we have partnered with the city of Houston to experiment with types of traffic signal timing programs to allow trains to get through the downtown area quicker and safer. We are currently using a “queue jumping” program that gets trains through an intersection before automobile traffic. Automobile traffic traveling the same direction as the train gets a brief red traffic light while the train goes through the intersection, while traffic traveling the opposite direction of the train get a green traffic signal. Since most of our left turns in front of the train are from cars traveling the same direction as the train, we stop them with a red traffic light while allowing cars traveling the opposite direction to proceed through an intersection on a green light.
Another consideration is a four-way red signal. In San Diego and Houston, there are several intersections which were identified as higher risk than others. When traffic signals were changed to an all-red phase when trains went through the intersection accidents reduced significantly.
Signs around rail lines can be confusing. Again in San Diego, they found that the conventional round railroad crossing sign was ignored when it was placed around downtown streets where trains crossed at grade (street running).
When the traditional railroad sign was replaced with a sign that had a graphic of a light-rail vehicle on it, people understood that and used caution crossing the intersection. Conversely, they found the traditional railroad crossing (crossbuck) sign painted on the street approaching an intersection where trains crossed did make motorists stop and look for trains.
By putting up the light-rail vehicle warning sign and painting crossbucks on the street, drivers figured out that the light-rail system was going to cross in front of them on a downtown street.
Look at how visible signs are for cars approaching a crossing or intersection. There may be trees, signs, banners, new construction or a variety of other things blocking what was once a clearly visible sign. If your grade crossing sign is just one of many signs directing motorists, you can pretty much bet that none of those signs got a good look.
Traffic signal timing and visibility can also be big issues. There are intersections that normally come up in a series of green lights, or platoon-type “rolling” signals. Intersections where trains cross usually are excluded from a particular pattern when trains are present. In other words, you may be driving through a series of green traffic lights and not know that the intersection where trains cross will not go green for you as the others did because a train is getting ready to cross that intersection. This can cause drivers to expect a green light to come up when it is not going to, or look down to the following intersection and go on the green light that comes up there. If the traffic signals at the next intersection are louvered, drivers are less likely to anticipate a green light, or go on a green light that is not for them.
At intersections where no turns are permitted across tracks, consider using a green arrow instead of a green ball traffic light. We found that taking away drivers’ options and giving them direction helps reduce accidents. If the green arrow directs them to go straight through an intersection, they are less likely to make a turn.
Houston has been experimenting with in-pavement lighting at intersections where light rail vehicles cross. In cooperation with FHWA, Metro has installed red flashing lights in the pavement along the stop bar at several intersections in the central business district. The red in-pavement lights illuminate when the traffic signal is red, giving drivers extra warning at rail intersections. When the test is complete, the FHWA will evaluate their effectiveness and consider it for national use.
Public awareness programs can do a lot to reduce accidents. In San Diego, Trolley’s campaign to reduce accidents in its Centre City area several years ago — in partnership with the San Diego Police Department’s Video Training Unit — they produced public service announcements (PSAs) played on local television stations. The only cost was for videotape.
San Diego Police provided the equipment and editing facility, San Diego Trolley provided the script and talent, and the local television stations played the videos as part of their FCC commitment to air public service announcements. Teamwork got the safety message out to more than 3 million residents for the cost of videotape.
What Is The Answer?
The short answer is commitment. You have to be committed to looking at all factors that contribute to collisions. You can train your operators to be defensive drivers, but if the traffic signals along your alignment aren’t clear to motorists, you are making it more difficult for operators to have a safe trip.
If you have great signs warning drivers that they are approaching a track but they are blocked by trees or get lost in a sea of other signs, you are not helping them.
If you have great signs and signals but lack enforcement, then you leave the door open for drivers to ignore all of them.
It takes commitment from all stakeholders. That may mean you have to form a task force to make sure issues get addressed. That might include your authority, law enforcement, public works, DOT and any private sector groups that can help you mitigate risk.
Finally, live by the word, “anticipate.” Operators need to constantly anticipate that drivers and pedestrians around them are going to end up in front of them. We need to anticipate that people aren’t going to know they are near a rail system and that we need to do our best to place signs and signals that will help them with that realization.
We need to anticipate that the people we hire to operate our equipment safely may not have all the tools they need and that we have to develop comprehensive training programs that give them the right tools.
Duane Sayers is the director of rail transporation for Houston Metro.