Light rail safety in the United States: how does Seattle compare?

Despite operating 6 miles of surface track, with 37 crossings where people, cars and objects mix with trains, Sound Transit is safer than many light rail systems across the country. Still, there is room for improvement.

Seattle-area trains on Sound Transit Line 1 were involved in collisions 92 times in 2015-2021, about once a month, according to Federal Transit Administration (FTA) data. There were 21 injuries and fatalities, placing Sound Transit 15th out of 22 light rail systems. (Seattle weather counted FTA data for collisions with pedestrians and vehicles on the tracks, while excluding people on trains or on station platforms, transit workers, and some low-damage crashes.)

By comparison, there were 629 crashes in Houston, where 80 street and alley intersections cause conflict. The Los Angeles Metro reported 151 injuries and deaths, but trains on the four Los Angeles routes crashed less per mile traveled than those on Seattle’s single line.

Granted, the country’s 531 light rail crashes in 2019 don’t compare to the 6.8 million motor vehicle accidents reported to police that year and 36,096 road deaths. Light rail trains serve a tiny share of trips in the United States, but collide more per mile than passenger cars, usually at railroad crossings.

Sound Transit offers new design standards that state, “Future pedestrian crossings at level should be avoided where possible. The 2024 extensions to Federal Way and Lynnwood are built off-road, while Bellevue trains will cross three routes east of downtown.

Here’s what some cities have tried:

Los Angeles

The new Crenshaw line south of the airport won’t open until the end of 2022, but the agency has already agreed to convert a boulevard crossing in nearby Inglewood into an overhead trestle in 2026 for 150 million dollars, in order to avoid traffic jams and accidents around new stadiums and the 2028 Olympic Games.

Ten intersections along the Crenshaw Line are equipped with red-light cameras, commonplace in the Los Angeles subway.

Portland

Oregon lawmakers created a unique Tri-Met Crash Advisory Board in 2019 at the request of Darla Sturdy, whose 16-year-old son was fatally hit in 2003 by a train while riding a bicycle in the suburbs. of Gresham. She says Oregonians were tricked long ago by a “transit industrial complex” out to get public funds.

“They should have an amazing safety record,” Sturdy said. “The reason they don’t is not because of the operator, it’s because of the design.”

The committee focused on multiple accident sites where Tri-Met can consider slower road speeds and better signals, Chairman Scott Kocher said. Also, more and more homeless people are walking from camps to tracks where Tri-Met has installed new fencing, but longer-term solutions are needed, Kocher said.

Tri-Met is studying how to identify the most useful pedestrian-focused crossing improvements, spokeswoman Roberta Altstadt said. FTA says it has awarded $825,506 through 2025 for the $1.1 million project, including new cameras and video analysis to seek “measurable reductions in deaths and injuries at light rail crossings.”

Portland’s unique Tillikum Bridge over the Willamette River for transit, walking and biking added a mile of traffic-free corridor in 2015. Tri-Met studied $4.5 billion tunnel downtown to improve speed and capacity, compared to slow downtown surface trains.

Houston

The Houston Metro was dubbed the “Wham Bam” train when it started up in 2004, and its current 22-mile system averages 90 accidents a year. These quirky tracks intertwine with vehicle left-turn lanes, as well as driveways near the Texas Medical Center.

To reduce the number of wrecks, Metro has tried blue and red stripes on trains and signals that give trains a head start on other traffic. Pavement warning lights reduced dangerous car turns, but a contractor could not operate them.

However, the city is still making compromises to avoid reducing car capacity. As recently as 2015, Houston built more “shared tracks” for a new downtown light rail line.

Pittsburgh

The Port Authority’s light rail trains rarely collide, an average of five times a year.

“The fact that our system is relatively slow, and even slower in traversals, certainly plays a role,” spokesman Adam Brandolph said. Crossing speeds are 10-15 mph, compared to a cruising speed of 30-35 mph.

Trains can avoid contention in the 118-year-old Mount Washington Tunnel and a new Allegheny River tunnel downtown, but 14 miles cross or share surface streets.

Neighbors know what to expect because the trains use streetcar corridors that are nearly a century old, Brandolph said. If two trains combine, they automatically stop because their old power supply can only propel one.

Jose P. Rogers