Metro Transit, serving the Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota region, experienced six collisions in a 31-day period between December 4, 2015 and January 3, 2016, three of which were fatal. There were four pedestrian collisions, one with a bicycle and one with a mobility device. The circumstances were varied but there was one theme that emerged: a disregard for active warning devices and a lack of situational awareness around light rail grade crossings.
Metro Transit secured funding for grade crossing awareness from Operation Lifesaver and added those to its resources to its own for a two-pronged approach that blended the traditional three Es of safety — Engineering, Education and Enforcement. The campaign highlighted that safety around trains is a shared responsibility and made light rail transit more visible and obvious in its operating environment.
During 2016, an aggressive public outreach campaign was implemented, which included traditional media and direct outreach. Billboards garnered more than 1.25 million impressions, train ad panels on four trains had more than 50 million impressions, rolling stock door stickers had more than 2 million impressions and live radio spots had more than 200,000 impressions.
Social media communication via Facebook and Twitter saw more than 700,000 impressions.
Station safety blitzes were held and various trinkets with safety messaging were handed out and allowed staff to engage in conversations with the public about safe behavior at stations and around trains. There were also schedule-sized brochures for riders in English, Spanish, Hmong and Somali.
At daycares, preschools and elementary schools near light rail, Operation Lifesaver activity books were distributed.
There were several engineering improvements applied to make light rail more risible in its operating environment. “Wig Wag” train headlamps were installed – a change of the front markers from steady to alternating brightness when the horn or bell is activated. The fleet is currently 66 percent complete.
Ground-mounted pedestrian indicators at station entrances were changed from static LED lighting to flashing when a train is approaching.
Along the right-of-way, existing fencing was extended to discourage shortcutting across the tracks. At certain station locations, railings were added to channel pedestrians to the crossing and force them to turn to face oncoming traffic.
Grade crossing warnings were enhanced by keeping at least one bell sounding even when gates are fully deployed. In addition, advance flashers were added to a bike path for advance notification of a train approaching a nearby crossing.
Between January 4, 2015, and January 3, 2016, there were 14 total light rail pedestrian collisions: 7 on the Blue Line and 7 on the Green Line. After implementation of the program, between January 4, 2016, and January 3, 2017, there were 7 total pedestrian collisions: 3 on the Blue Line and 4 on the Green Line. There were no pedestrian fatalities during the year of the safety campaign.
We can also infer some measure of effectiveness from our close call reporting. Operators are required to report emergency braking events and our 2016 experience showed a reduction of 235 close calls compared against the previous year.
The logical challenge of proving the negative – that certain mishaps did not occur – applies here. However, looking at the mishaps and near misses before–and–after of the program, we are comfortable drawing the conclusion that our engineering and outreach was effective. Further, we communicated our outreach messages to the generational Baby Boomers, Generation Xers and Millennials with varied approaches using radio, print, billboards and social media.
In the 3rd quarter of 2016, an APTA peer review committee assessed our outreach, engineering, and management practices. We believe the overall observations serve to validate the effectiveness of the blended program. Here are some excerpts:
• “Metro Transit is a very good system, with excellent staff dedicated to the safe transportation of its customers”
• “Recent operational enhancements have increased safety in the corridors”
• “The peer review team commends Metro Transit for diligently striving to promote safety in all its activities throughout the agency.”
Safety Program Benefit Level
We estimate that hundreds of staff hours are spent on one high profile mishap. Staff representing safety, police, risk, virtually all rail operating departments, and public information would have roles in response, investigation, restoration, final reporting, media interface, etc. To the extent this program contributed to safer interaction with LRT (cut in half, and no fatalities), the response and investigation cost to the agency was reduced considerably. Consequently, the agency departments were permitted to devote more resources to forward-looking hazard management as opposed to incident response and investigation.
The cost of the engineering ($275,000) and outreach ($27,000 – $25,000 of which was Operation Lifesaver grant funding) is estimated at around $300,000. We look forward to these investments reducing pedestrian mishaps going forward.
The cost to local society was reduced even more dramatically. While we hesitate to assign the value of a human life, a quick internet search yields that in the US that value is around $5 million. So, in this case, the value of the reduction in human tragedy was about $15 million in one year.
An important indirect or non-financial benefit is community goodwill. Metro Transit believes strongly that safety is the cornerstone of what we do. Our mission statement reflects this: We at Metro Transit deliver environmentally sustainable transportation choices that link people, jobs and community conveniently, consistently and safely.
Not only did an investment of just over $300,000 allow for better allocation of agency resources, it saved lives and reassured the region that Metro Transit continues to operate with the safety of our employees, patrons and the public in mind.
Safety Program/Project Innovation – Blended Approach
The hierarchy of hazard mitigation prefers to engineer a hazard out of a system if possible. Other mitigations include active warning devices, and instruction (outreach). This is not new, and FTA demonstrates its high regard for hazard management in the latest Safety Management System rulemaking. Metro Transit continues to apply the hazard management process to its business.
What is new here is how we applied the mitigations. Our blended approach included engineering, warning, and outreach, depending on which aspects of the pedestrian/LRT interface in the operating environment were better served by one approach over another.
The outreach was mindful that not all ages are reached by the same message or medium. A very general statement that has some anecdotal accuracy goes like this: Boomers call, Xers email, and Millennials text. We used social media wherever possible, posting and tweeting certain messages for the benefit of those who follow us.
The tricky business of what to say and how to say it was gleaned from discussions with individuals representing various generations. The “boomer” in some of us was used to craft billboard and other outreach, all the while keeping a certain flavor for other age groups.
For the Hmong, Spanish and Somali brochures, we enlisted copy editing from those who speak the language and know the culture. Further, virtually all of our outreach included the mantra “safety is a shared responsibility” integrated into the message. We recognize that our efforts are ineffective without public cooperation.
Safety Program/Project Transferability
Pedestrian interfaces continue to challenge the LRT operating environment. Varying profiles with the alignment – including semi exclusive line sections in one neighborhood and median street running in another require a lot of thought. It is no secret to operating and safety professionals nationwide that the issue has never been solved once and for all. We believe our approach is highly transferable, assuming collaborative marketing, engineering, operating, and safety staff. Our engineering enhancements considered available budget. Our outreach considered generational differences.
Final Thoughts on Process
We here at Metro Transit know that we don’t have all the answers. And, while that could be a bit unsettling, at the same time it motivates us to keep looking for the next good way to enhance system safety.
Engineering and outreach exist at virtually every transit agency. We must assess what can be engineered, and what resources can be applied to those engineering enhancements.
Public outreach is absolutely essential. Everyone who interacts with our rail systems needs to know what is expected of them. We cannot assume that everyone knows what to do and we must continue to work hard to make warning devices obvious to everyone, and to craft messages with generational differences in mind.
Most importantly, we must never stop looking for the next enhancement.
Michael Conlon is the director of safety at Metro Transit in Minneapolis, Minnesota.