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Where the forest and the trees collide

Headline atop Tuesday’s Chronicle: Spike in Metrorail crashes prompts a second look at safety measures.

Metro recorded a record 17 accidents on its rail system in June, and most of them involved the kind of action Marchetti narrowly avoided: people or cars moving into the train’s path or, in one case, a bicyclist riding into the side of a train, Metro officials said. Even so, the incidents renewed criticism that at-grade trains like Metro’s are rolling disasters. Metropolitan Transit Authority officials, meanwhile, are looking for new ways to keep drivers, cyclists and pedestrians from wandering into the paths of the trains.

The 17 June crashes – which involved 13 vehicles, three pedestrians and one bicyclist – were the most in any month since the agency began rail service in 2004. It was only the third time the number of accidents exceeded nine in a month. The spike was alarming, Metro officials said, but was not an indication of flaws in operations.

Metro said three of the collisions might have been prevented if agency employees had acted differently. For example, a train was exceeding Metro’s maximum speed for the area when it collided with an ambulance in the Texas Medical Center. The cause, however, was the ambulance turning illegally in front of the train.

Metro officials said no single factor determines the level of safety on the rail system. Different segments face different challenges, they said.

The June numbers, in fact, might have been an aberration. As of July 24, Metro had logged five rail accidents in the month, within the agency’s normal range.

In fact, if you look a little farther down in the story, you’ll see a graphic that shows the monthly accident totals going back to June 2013. In the 24 months from June 2013 to May 2015, there were 106 total accidents, or 4.4 per month. Also farther down in the story is this paragraph:

Traffic accidents in general in the Houston area are up, according to the Houston-Galveston Area Council. Based on miles traveled, the regional accident rate increased 13 percent in 2014 from the previous year, to 229 vehicle collisions per 100 million miles of driving. Bus crashes increased 9 percent from 2013 to 2014.

And here’s what the top of the houstonchronicle.com homepage looked like a bit later on Tuesday:

OverturnedBigRigHeadline

The story:

Traffic was snarled early Tuesday morning on portions of Interstate 10 after a big-rig overturned near the 610 Loop just west of downtown.

The single-vehicle crash happened about 5:40 a.m. on the inbound Katy Freeway ramp to the West Loop.

No information was available about possible injuries or what caused the crash.

The wreck forced officials to block the ramp from the westbound Katy Freeway to both the northbound and southbound West Loop while crews cleared the scene. It was not known when the ramp would reopen.

Just for grins, I did a search on “overturned truck” on the Chron. On the first two pages of results, I got eleven results for just this year. Here are the story links:

http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-traffic/article/Overturned-truck-blocks-freeway-ramp-6171566.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-traffic/article/Overturned-truck-slowing-traffic-at-I-10-and-US-59-6067056.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/houston/article/Overturned-truck-snarls-Beltway-8-East-6050920.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/houston/article/Truck-crash-snarls-I-10-downtown-6332716.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-traffic/article/Lost-load-causing-serious-accident-backups-on-6068407.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/houston/article/Overturned-big-rig-snarls-Eastex-Freeway-6161012.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-traffic/article/Accident-has-I-10-closed-for-hours-6150578.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/houston/article/Truck-crash-slows-East-Freeway-6089338.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Around-the-area-state-Truck-spills-hot-tar-6069099.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/houston/article/Fiery-tanker-crash-blocks-North-Loop-6399486.php
http://www.houstonchronicle.com/houston/article/Crash-blocks-East-Loop-6096418.php

That’s one search term and likely not all possible results. Lord knows, plenty of things besides overturned trucks can cause huge problems on the freeways. My point is this sort of thing happens all the damn time, without being front page news. But by all means, let’s worry about a weird one month jump in the number of accidents involving the train. Unlike all the overturned rigs, at least Metro is trying to do something about it.

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