After Emotional Metro Board Meeting, Blue Line Safety Back in the Spotlight

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“The deadliest light rail line in the country.”

Metro’s Blue Line, which runs from Metro Center through South L.A. and Watts into Long Beach, has been involved in more than its share of crashes, both minor and fatal, since it opened twenty-two years ago. Regardless of who is deemed “at fault” in the crash, it’s doubtless that the Blue Line’s at-grade routing is a major factor in the crashes. The grade-separated Gold Line and Green Line have been involved in zero fatal crashes in their histories.

In the midst of what might be the Blue Line’s bloodiest year to-date, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky wants answers. Yaroslavsky authored a motion directing staff to convene a Metro Blue Line Task Force to examine safety procedures and strategies for the Blue Line operation. The motion was amended by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas to improve communication to the community and media when there is a crash.

This year, six people have died after being struck by a Blue Line train. Four of those deaths were suicides. Despite the difficulty in preventing a suicide at an at-grade light rail, this number was particularly concerning to Yaroslavsky who pressured staff to create some solutions to the “suicide problem.”  The previous “record” for Blue Line fatalities was in 1999, when 10 people died after crashes with Blue Line trains.

Many residents of South L.A., including some at the Board Meeting yesterday openly wonder if the location of the Blue Line, which runs through many lower income and African American communities, has something to do with the lack of progress impeding deaths.

“Can you imagine this level of carnage being permitted in South Pasadena instead of South Los Angeles,” Damien Goodmon asked rhetorically when he spoke to Streetsblog and Intersections about the opening of the Expo Line.

This is hardly the first time that Metro has studied what causes so many Blue Line crashes. In fact, officials were perplexed by the deadly year in 1999 when it happened. Following a particularly nasty year in 1998, officials put in new procedures and infrastructure to make the line safer.

The Los Angeles Times reports on the changes put in place (in 1999):

* A public outreach campaign.

* The assignment of eight county sheriff’s deputies to watch for motorists and pedestrians trying to pass lowered crossing gates. Fines were increased last year to $271.

* The installation of 10 cameras at 17 locations to photograph motorists who try to get around lowered gates. Authorities can use photographs of the license plates to issue citations. This year, the MTA plans to add six more cameras.

* State approval for new crossing gates that are more difficult for motorists to bypass. The gates–which use four arms instead of two–were tested at 124th Street in Willowbrook. The MTA plans to install the gates on 10 other rail crossings over the next five years.

This year, the total number of deaths is increased by the number of suicides, and 1999 also had a statistical quirk.  Six of the ten reported deaths were caused in one crash, where an unlicensed driver tried to outrun a train and failed. In 1999, six of the ten deaths were caused by one unsafe driver. This year, four of the six deaths have been ruled suicides.

But blaming the fatality rate on the mistakes of the people killed is a non-starter. In 1999, the MTA expressed confusion over why so many people were making illegal left turns and driving into the path of the train.

“Why they are doing that, who knows?” said MTA spokesman Ed Scannell. The agency is launching a billboard campaign to warn motorists about the dangers of illegal left turns.

 In a 2010 piece at The Source, exasperated Metro staff also argue that the high fatality rate isn’t all the agency’s fault.

“I think there are two sides of the equation,” he said. “You have the agency responsible for building and operating the light rail lines and that has an obligation to incorporate safety measures and you have the public that has to obey the warning signs that we install. People have a responsibility to obey both the active and passive warning devices.

“We really need the public’s help in paying attention to them and not disobeying them for whatever reason.”

But that explanation doesn’t fly with friends and family of those killed in crashes. Yesterday’s Board of Directors meeting featured testimony from many people who lost loved ones in Blue Line crashes including a sobbing mother begging the Board to do something.
But short of costly grade separation projects, there might not be much that the Board can do. Public information campaigns come and go, but the death toll continues to rise. In the cases of suicide, it’s not clear what can be done other than to make the tracks inaccesible, something that is nigh impossible. The task force created yesterday has it’s work cut out for it: how do you find a solution to a problem that has eluded transportation planners for decades.
  • I feel for the people who have lost loved ones in Blue Line crashes, but I began reading this article expecting far worse numbers. This doesn’t sound at all like the Blue Line has real safety problems – your sensational opening not withstanding (“The deadliest light rail line in the country.”) 

    Can you give some context for that quote?  Is it the “deadliest” because this year 2 people (sorry, but I don’t count suicides), were killed verses I’m guessing 1 or zero for the other light rail lines in the country?  And where are those light rail lines?  Isn’t the Blue Line considered one the most utilized rail lines running through some of the densest urban area in the country?  We need to compare apples to apples here. 

    Regardless, 2 accidental deaths per year for a rail line sounds quite low.  If those 2 deaths were also caused by reckless drivers making bad decisions then I would simply call that inevitable.  Nothing wrong with periodically reviewing safety procedures and measure to determine their efficacy and to possibly improve them, but emotionally reacting to a sobbing mother is no way to conduct municipal business.
     

  • Anonymous

    …Yaroslavsky who pressured staff to create some solutions to the “suicide problem.”…
    Because planners and transit agency administrators are trained to deal with mental health issues and the lack of mental health care provided in U.S. society?

    So glad Zev is termed out in 2014.

  • Part of the problem over the years is we’ve had periods of consternation but quickly the Board drops follow-through and the status quo prevails. Plus where are all the electeds for the right-of-way to champion improvements? AWOL. Yvonne Burke was of no use and Ridley-Thomas seems to be following her inaction precedent. Metro has done some upgrades over the years for safety — here is a link to a document from 2010 that has details:

    https://docs.google.com/document/edit?id=1UQhGgrtyydp_XOV5BPZhQFVQQZ1mE4ZLl5s0fCY-x1A&pli=1

  • Another aspect is the mental health impact on the train operators. The trauma can be rather extreme.

  • The Gold Line is not grade separated.

  • Anonymous

    For one thing, now that Alameda Corridor is built, why can’t the UP be kicked out of the ROW?

  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous

    While I’m normally not a fan of Metro Rail (that comes from having to rely on it as my sole means of transpo), still, the onus has to be on those who ignore safety barriers or, for whatever reason just can’t stay of the effing tracks if it’s not necessary to be on them.

    I see it every day.

  • calwatch

    The UP has local trains that serve local businesses which have no access into the trench. Most of the trains on the UP subdivision adjacent to the Blue Line are slow speed locals.

  • Davistrain

    I think one of the underlying factors in the deaths of some young (and not-so-young) people is that they were never taught “respect”.  You should respect the train because it’s bigger and heavier than you are, and by the same token you should respect the police because they have guns and can shoot you.  You don’t have to like trains or cops but you
    do have to respect them.

  • Anonymous

    @TAPman:disqus – The Gold Line accident in 2006 was in fact a suicide. (Bridge at Highland Park).

    I know because I was there. :-(

    The one in Pasadena also was deemed a suicide. Lets just be clear that if a man or woman intentionally walks in front of a train that it was no accident. Clearly that person didn’t want to live anymore. There’s not much that can be done about people who have made the conscious decision to kill themselves. Metro can’t do much about that.

  • Davistrain

    I haven’t seen any recent statistics, but the CalTrain service between San Jose and San Francisco has had so many suicides-by-train that there are now signs with the Suicide Prevention hot line number posted along the tracks.

  • LongBeachB

    Is this “task force” the reason there have been so many sheriffs on the Blue Line platforms this week?  Or is it because the machines are no longer printing paper tickets (which I believe started this week?)  Or did something else happen?

  • Nathanael

    2 accidental deaths per year is so low it’s worth ignoring them completely, and dealing with the enormous carnage caused by cars and trucks first.

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