I was doing a little channel surfing last night before Tiffany and I headed out to childbirth class, and one of the Happy Talk Local News anchors popped up on my screen to say something like "MetroRail slammed by national publication! Details tonight!" Lovely, I thought. Just what we needed.
I didn't bother to stay up and watch the broadcast of their story, but I found it today.
The Bayou City's light-rail system made national headlines Monday.
A USA Today article titled, "Houston's Crash Course In Light Rail," addressed the number of accidents that have occurred since the system began its test runs in November.
The article said the system has had almost as many accident in three months as Dallas during the entire 2003 year.
The story said part of the problem is that Houston's light-rail system is at street level, instead of above of below ground, and that most Houstonians are drivers.
According to Stephen Klineberg, a sociology professor at Rice University, Houston is the most auto-dependent city in the nation.
For a full year, Houston tried to prepare its drivers to share the streets with the city's new light-rail transit system.
There were public service announcements, community forums and safety classes to educate drivers. The sleek trains were equipped with strobe lights, horns, bells and whistles to warn motorists.
A test of the safety campaign didn't fare well. An average of five drivers on Houston's streets each day plowed into trains while the system was working out its kinks before the Jan. 1 opening. Worried transit officials immediately launched more television ads. One had Metro Police Chief Tom Lambert growling, "So, what part of safety do we not understand?"
Nobody really knows the answer to that question. But since the MetroRail trains began running full time Jan. 1, there have been 15 more collisions. No one has died in the accidents. Police blame motorists in all of them. "It's not a rail problem," says Ken Connaughton of the Metropolitan Transit Authority. "It's a driver problem."
As it happens, the Chron today has a story which notes that a review of the MetroRail design found no systemic flaws.
Metropolitan Transit Authority officials have reviewed part of the report's draft, scheduled to be released at a news conference Thursday. Experts at the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University are expected to recommend minor adjustments to signal timing and signage. Those suggestions will be in addition to changes Metro already has implemented during the monthlong study, including using train horns only in emergencies.
Metro had planned on increasing train frequencies and adjusting bus routes to better tie in to the new rail line starting Feb. 15 but postponed the changes until TTI's review was completed. There have been 23 train/vehicle crashes in the past four months, a rate far exceeding that of any other new light rail line in the United States.
Metro police cited 22 of the vehicle drivers for traffic infractions that caused the wrecks, including illegal left and right turns, running red lights and failing to yield the right of way when pulling out of a driveway or intersection. Police blamed the other crash on a Union Pacific Railroad employee who bypassed a flashing crossing arm on the test track, but they are still reviewing what type of citation, if any, should be issued.