July 25--Three MetroRail collisions this week highlight persistent safety concerns that arise when trains share the road with cars -- a problem that Metro officials hope to control as they prepare to open two new rail lines.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority has experienced a relatively high number of accidents in its decade running light rail along Main Street. The agency has made adjustments to improve safety, but this week's accidents show the problem is far from solved.
The collisions occurred Tuesday and Wednesday over a period of less than 36 hours. The Tuesday crash occurred along Fannin in the Texas Medical Center, where cars can cross onto the tracks to make left turns. The Wednesday incidents were in the Medical Center and along Harrisburg, where Metro is testing trains in advance of a December opening of its Green Line.
Preliminary analysis indicates the train operator was at fault in one of the Med Center crashes, and motorists likely caused the other incidents. Two of the accidents led to reported injuries.
Metro officials said Thursday that they don't see the need for any immediate changes to address problems at the crash locations, but they are always looking for ideas to improve safety. Many Metro critics have cited an at-grade system's potential for accidents in arguing that Metro should have built its lines above or below street level.
In the decade since the Red Line opened between south of the Medical Center and downtown Houston, Metro trains have been involved in 450 collisions, according to the agency. Of those, 173 between January 2004 and March 2014 were considered serious enough to report to the National Transit Database, a clearinghouse for transit information, either because of an injury or more than $20,000 worth of property damage.
From October 2013 until the end of June, Metro reported 47 light rail collisions. None of the months has exceeded Metro's goal of no more than six collisions per month.
Regardless of cause, Metro has seen far more collisions than other light rail systems when the system's size is factored in.
The eight serious collisions Metro reported last year were the same number as Portland, Ore., where the light rail system travels five times as many miles. Dallas Area Rapid Transit, which also travels five times as many miles as Metro, had one fewer accident. Both cities have at-grade systems, but most of Dallas' system is separated from auto traffic.
Motorists cause most wrecks
Based on Metro's analysis, 22 of the accidents in the past decade -- an average of about two per year -- were deemed preventable by the train's operator.
"In a large sense, it is a motorist who is making a call that is not a good one," said Margaret O'Brien-Molina, spokeswoman for Metro.
In fact, accidents among automobiles as a whole are up in 2014, compared to the past four years, according to Houston TranStar. In June 2014, emergency officials responded to 874 accidents along major freeway and highway corridors, compared to 799 in June 2013 and 733 in June 2012.
Of the 10 collisions involving trains in the Medical Center this year, five were caused when a vehicle made an illegal left turn or merged onto the tracks after making an illegal turn. The accident Tuesday morning occurred when a car turned left onto northbound Fannin, then struck the train as the train operator honked.
"When we built the rail line in the Medical Center, the shared left turn lane was something we knew we had to plan for," Metro CEO Tom Lambert noted.
To shake the "danger train" reputation the light rail line acquired early in its operation, officials changed light timing in downtown, both to give the train a jump on traffic and to discourage illegal left turns. Officials, prompted by a Metro engineer's idea, developed traffic signals surrounded by a red band of LED light to give drivers another visual cue to stop.
Subtle changes have been made in the Medical Center, as well, Metro police chief Tim Kelly said, to restrict access, add lighting and signs and warn travelers to avoid the train.
Still, with so many people coming into the area and street-level trains an unexpected part of travel for some drivers, their existence can cause alarm.
"The safest thing would be if they were above ground," said Dick May, who sometimes drops his wife off at her job in the Medical Center. "I've had them sneak up on me."
'Change is hard'
As MetroRail officials prepare for the December openings of the Green Line along Harrisburg east of downtown and the Purple Line along Scott and Wheeler southeast of downtown, they have focused on community awareness.
"Metro has been out talking to every citizen group it can get itself in front of," said Diane Schenke, president of the Greater East End Management District. "They have lights at every intersection that flash. It is very difficult to think what else can be done."
Still, Schenke said, the new line is "weighed against years and years of people driving on this road. Change is hard."
Some of the most drastic changes to travel patterns will be downtown, where the new lines cross the Red Line. Downtown traffic will face north-south trains as well as east-west ones along Capitol and Rusk.
After three years of monthly meetings with downtown business officials about construction, Lambert said, Metro is shifting the focus to preparing for opening day.
"We're handing out as much information as we can," the Metro CEO said.
Few of the conditions present in the Medical Center -- spots where cars sit on the tracks to make left turns -- exist along the Green and Purple lines. In many spots along the two new routes, the track is on a slightly elevated platform and largely fenced in, said Andy Skabowski, operations director for Metro.
That might be enough of a buffer to make a difference, Schenke said. Still, she acknowledged transit officials face a challenge.
"There are people to this day that do not pay attention to pedestrians and bicyclists," she said. "We are conditioned in Houston not to expect anything but cars on the street. That's what some people think."
Copyright 2014 - Houston Chronicle