Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Safety outreach urgent as transit improves

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The good news is that fast public transport services are making a comeback in America's urban cityscapes, taking the form of electric light rail transit (LRT), regional passenger rail ("commuter rail"), and even Bus Rapid Transit. And Amtrak's intercity rail passenger services—which overwhelmingly use surface alignments through urban and suburban areas— may be gradually getting better in both speed and frequency on some routes in future years.

But this is happening so quickly, it's tending to take the public, especially the motoring public, by surprise. What they've usually thought were just occasional, slow, plodding trains on sleepy rail lines in some cases are being re-invented as fairly rapid, vibrant passenger operations running on much more frequent headways.

An article I recently published (on the HubPages E-zine) highlights the safety issue:

Faster U.S. surface transit raises need for rail safety awareness of public

It focuses on four systems whose problems with motor vehicle collisions have particularly stood out from all the rest:

• Los Angeles's Blue Line LRT

• Miami area's South Miami-Dade Busway

• Houston's MetroRail

• Los Angeles's Orange Line Busway

A huge part of the problem, my analysis points out, lies with lousy public awareness of the dangers of trains in general, and unfamiliarity with the potential of a fast urban transit train (or bus) to clobber you. But it's not just transit; Amtrak, too, runs almost always on the surface through urban and suburban areas.

In contrast with the European approach, America's transportation officials have generally downplayed the safety implications of laying new level crossings across surface tracks, while grade separations are commonplace throughout European metro areas. As a result, according to Operation Lifesaver, every three hours a person or vehicle in the U.S. is hit by a train.

And, says the article, pedestrian accidents are a glaring problem also—and young people are especially oblivious to the dangers, with a penchant for walking on tracks with their common sense left in a locker somewhere. Among the most dangerous behaviors highlighted are walking on the tracks with loud music blaring out of earbuds or headphones, and walking while texting. And — can you believe this? — lying down on the tracks and dozing off (often after alcohol or recreational drugs).

Is there a remedy? Well, nothing can totally eradicate at least occasional recklessness, but some degree of aggressive upgrading in rail safety programs through vigorous government action is suggested — especially rail safety outreach programs. I've addressed this in another article:

U.S. rail safety outreach awareness programs needed

In this article, I've tried to sketch out a vigorous public education campaign emphasizing the potential hazards of dangerous behavior and reinforcing proper procedures and safe practices around railroad tracks.

These issues are also covered in a paper I presented (with a couple of colleagues) to the American Public Transportation Association Rail Conference in 2008; it's summarized here:

Innovative Rail Safety Outreach for a New Rail Transit Service in Austin, Texas

If rail safety is a strong concern, you should make your opinion heard. Get enough of us doing that, and maybe we can influence some major new rail safety outreach policy initiatives.

Lyndon Henry

Lyndon Henry is a writer, editor, investigative journalist, and transportation consultant currently based in Central Texas. He holds a Master of Science in Community & Regional Planning, with a focus in Transportation, from the University of Texas at Austin, 1981. From 1973 to 1989 he was executive director of the Texas Association for Public Transportation, and presented the original proposals and feasibility studies for light rail that led to the inclusion of rail transit in the Austin-area planning process.. From 1981 to 1985 he served as a transportation consultant to the Hajj Research Centre at King Abdul Aziz University, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He has also served as a transportation planning consultant on several other transit projects in the USA. In 1983-84 he was a member of the Austin-Travis County Transit Task Force which recommended a transit authority for the Austin area. That agency, eventually named Capital Metro, was created in 1985. From 1989 to 1993, Mr. Henry served as a board member and vice-chairman of Capital Metro. From 1990 to 1992 he was an Adjunct Faculty member at St. Edwards University, teaching a course in public policy. Since 2000 he has served as a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project, and from 2002 to late 2011 he served as a Data Analyst for Capital Metro in Austin. He is also a member of APTA’s Streetcar and Heritage Trolley Subcommittee and Light Rail Transit Technical Subcommittee.