March 09, 2004
USA Today on Metro Rail

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.

That's it? Where's the slam? Here's the article the culled the story from. Maybe I'm getting addlepated, but if there was any slamming going on in that story, it was of our town's drivers.

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."

While I agree with that assessment, I'm scratching my head about that "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" bit. We've had 23 accidents total, 15 of which have come after January 1, so unless the author meant to imply that the "before Jan. 1" period is exactly 1.6 days long, there's some seriously fuzzy math going on here.

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.

I heard someone say recently "it's not like the trains are jumping the tracks and attacking innocent vehicles". I almost feel like we'd have a better handle on the situation if that were the case. I'm going to try to stay hopeful that the rate of accidents will decrease as people eventually figure out where the train is.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 09, 2004 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | TrackBack

Ignoring the rail issue -- remember the most important thing you can learn from childbirth class is how to say "We want the epidural NOW, please" repeatedly until you get it. It will make you happier and probably Tiffany as well!

The rest of it is pretty straightforward -- even as an ex-pure mathematician, you can probably handle counting to 10 over and over again for a couple of hours.

Posted by: David on March 9, 2004 8:58 AM

This follows the Adams Principle:
The superficial design flaws are there to conceal the fundamental design flaws.

So-called experts are too busy bickering over the route and the lane changes and signage and re-education of drivers to notice the fact that the whole problem is based on it being street-level.

Posted by: Laurence Simon on March 9, 2004 9:26 AM

i am doing a project for school and i would like to know how many light rail accidents there has been since 2/17/05.

Posted by: Randi Holly on February 17, 2005 10:33 AM