Does Metrolink Disaster Point to Need for Grade Separated Expo?

9_25_08_rosendahl.gifYesterday afternoon, the City Council Transportation Committee heard testimony about the response of emergency responders to the September 12th Metrolink crash.  Towards the end of the hearing, a fiery Bill Rosendahl sounded off about the need to place a higher priority on safety when building new rail projects.  His comments were clearly directed at the Expo Construction Authority, and were later echoed by community leaders during open testimony:

We need to reconsider what’s important.  I don’t want to hear ever again ‘it’s cheaper to build it at grade’ or ‘it’s faster to build it at grade.’  I don’t care about the price, I want to hear about the safety.

After testimony from Fix Expo, Neighbors for Smart Rail, and representatives from the South and Westside Neighborhood Councils, Jay Handal of the Greater West Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce summarized the commenter’s thoughts:

How many deaths will it take to get the job done right?

  • Can someone please explain the connection between at-grade crossings and head-on train collisions? The Blue and Gold lines run at-grade and there have been zero head-on collisions between trains in the 19 years of light rail operation…because they both have dedicated directional trackage.

    this has nothing to do with whether or not they are at-grade.

  • Marcotico

    The connection is they both are driven by financial and political expediency. Metrolink operates on single tracks shared with freight rail, because that was the easiest, and cheapest way to originally build the service (and realistically the only way at the time).

    Rosendahl, in order to be truly honest should have added “If we can’t do it right, is it worth it to not do it at all?”

  • LostAngelino

    I think the issue isn’t a head on collision its more an issue of trains being involved in accidents period. And besides we live in LA. making the majority of our system at grade like some transit advocates seem to want to do. Is, I think, step backwards. LA is all about speed our nothing will be faster than our freeways but i can relatively quick. Grade seperate the lines in the dense areas to avoid potential accidents and delays, and have better bus service to those train stations, and you’ll attract the ridership. Run the at grade with development at the end of the lines.

  • Under that logic, we should just not build roads so cars can’t hit each other. This is silly. I believe 43,000 people died in car accidents last year. Where’s the outrage there?

  • Do these people have brains? Would grade-separation have prevented two trains on the same track from running into each other? Would grade-separation ever prevent two trains on the same track from running into each other? Do I need to draw them a diagram?

    Seriously, did these people ever take Physics? Let alone an elementary school art class? This sounds more like a rehash of the classic “cars good, trains bad.”

    I might also mention that Metrolink is largely agreed to have, for good or ill, been built on the cheap, whereas Metro largely builds higher-quality rail service in terms of safety standards than exists back East.

  • How many cars are on the road? How many trains are on the road?

    Of course there are always going to be less train accidents – there’s exponentially less trains. The number of car miles driven per day in our region is in the millions! The number of rail miles operated in our region is in the hundreds!

    The number of trains crossings at one street level crossing in our region in an entire day is less than the number of cars that cross the intersection in one lane of one busy intersection in 20 mins during rush hour.

    Here’s the comparative accident and fatality rates:

    Accident rates for the Blue Line: 17.1 per million miles operated
    Accident rates for the freeways: 1.09 per million miles operated

    Fatality rates for the Blue Line: 1.77 per million miles operated
    Fatality rates for the roads: 0.018 per million miles operated

    If the number of trains on the road equaled the number of cars on the road, the people who claim we shouldn’t worry about rail safety wouldn’t be around to claim we shouldn’t worry about rail accidents because they would have been maimed and killed.

    From Jan ’93 – December ’07 there were 100 deaths on Metrolink. 2 of those deaths involved train-train collisions. The other 98 involved deaths from train-pedestrian and train-car accidents. Both are problems and both need to be addressed.

    Additionally, grade separation is a separation of grades. Building it so pedestrians/cars/cyclist don’t share the same space as trains.

    Its sort of the same thing here where freight-commuter were sharing the same tracks.

    By the way, after Rosendahl’s statement I said loud enough to be heard by Parks’ transportation deputy (Parks who didn’t make it to the committee meeting), what will it take to get Rosendahl to move into the 8th District.

  • Damien: How many of those 98 Metrolink deaths involved people who (a) committed suicide; (b) illegally drove around crossing barriers or; (c) illegally used the rail tracks as a sidewalk?


    I’ll wait.

  • Those systems back east built on the cheap still have a fraction the number of commuter rail and light rail accidents as our more “modern” systems. In practically every category.

    I think it’s actually the reverse. We’re in a rush to compensate for having nothing for so many decades that we’re more prone to taking mistakes.

  • I think you misread my comment.

    1) Metro is well-built. It is difficult to compare Metro LRT to Metrolink since Metro LRT does not share track with other service. They face different safety concerns.

    2) Metrolink, compared to other commuter rail systems like Metra, MNR, LIRR, or the MBCR, is built on the cheap, largely due to the lack of available tracks and the prominence of freight service into and out of the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

    Because the commuter rail systems back East have existed for a long time, they are largely built up and generally double-tracked, access-restricted, or often both, although nearly all of them share 1-2 lines per city with Amtrak. Metrolink’s situation is not normal, and that is rightly being questioned, but it’s important to draw distinctions between the two services.

  • Probably a much lower percentage than the number of people injured and killed in car accidents that involved people making illegal turns, driving on the side of the street, or drivers acting out of road rage.

    No person in Los Angeles would dare claim that people in LA drive perfectly, so why expect the same around rail lines? People aren’t perfect – they’re called accidents for a reason, and the accident and fatality rates are so much lower for cars than trains. There’s a reason. Trains can’t stop on a dime, or turn to avert accidents.

    It’s not assigning blame – it’s a reality. One that needs to be taken into account and given appropriate consideration when determining how to build a rail line.

    Here are the comparative accident rates:
    4.06 Metrolink
    2.15 New Jersey (NJTR)
    2.13 Boston MBTA
    1.79 Chicago (NIRC)
    1.16 NYC Long Island Railroad
    0.77 Philadelphia
    0.63 New York-Connecticut (Metro North)

    If people are okay with assuming these risks in our transportation system, then I go back to what people hated me asking before during the Expo debate: how many is enough to actually change what we’re doing?

  • Aaron,

    I’m not disagreeing that there are differences in the systems.

    The issue is the policy making process that puts so little value on safety. It’s hard to justify a company – any company – operating a product that is so much more deadly than it’s competitors for years doing so little to address the concern, while spending billions expanding the system.

    How much money is in Measure R to add grade separations to Phase 1 of the Expo Line?

    What about grade separations to the Blue Line?

    What about safety improvements to Metrolink?

    40 billion dollars for the next 30 years and there’s not one red cent.

    The systems that exist today are a product of the policies that have been made with impunity for the last two decades.

  • Gawd, talk about a straw man. Who would be dumb enough to think that anyone would think that the connection between the Metrolink crash and the Expo issue has anything specifically to do with head-on collisions. Obviously that’s not the issue. But clearly there is an issue highlighted by the crash in that the price of building rail “on the cheap” can be quite high in terms of human suffering.

    Nobody denies that double tracking Metrolink would reduce the risk of head-on collisions, just as nobody denies that grade separating Expo would reduce the risk of pedestrian and automobile collisions. The question why not in both cases comes down to a cost-benefit analysis about the relative risk versus the cost. In both cases, it was determined by the powers that be that the risk of suffering was worth the cost savings.

    It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that the logic is quite analogous. In the case of Expo, it’s particularly egregious because apparently the risks of at-grade light rail are acceptable in South LA and the outer reaches of downtown, but not so much in Culver City, around U.S.C. and in the downtown core. One can only conclude that the socioeconomic status of those most likely to be injured in each of those places respectively figures prominently into the cost-benefit analysis.

  • I’m always amazed how combative some people become when others suggest grade separation.

    We have grade separation on the elevated Green Line throughout the South Bay area and the result of it has been not one incident resulting in injury or death, or collisions with pedestrians, cars, and bicycles. Not one other line in Los Angeles can make that claim.

    The elevated Green Line is very nice looking transportation system with ornate piers that allow the surrounding area can keep their landscaping. The gritty rail systems like the Blue Line automatically downgrade the look of its surrounding communities with its gravel fill and wind blown trash.

  • Matt Gleason

    At the end of the day, rail in LA kills at lot of people. Damien G has demonstrated this aptly.

    Comparisons to rail systems back east can end there.

    The question today is…do race and class affect exposure to high- speed at-grade rail?

    In LA it seems they sure as hell do.

  • First off, Damien, those accident figures are bunk unless they show accidents per passenger-mile, not just per mile operated.

    “The question today is…do race and class affect exposure to high- speed at-grade rail? In LA it seems they sure as hell do.”

    The last time I checked, South Pasadena (at-grade Gold Line) was a lot whiter and a lot richer than any neighborhood the separated Green Line passed through.

  • “First off, Damien, those accident figures are bunk unless they show accidents per passenger-mile, not just per mile operated.”

    That’s a joke right?

    Train miles is the distance a train operates.
    Passenger miles is the collective distance people on the train have ridden.

    Since when does a safety hazard a train poses to fellow motorists, pedestrians and cyclist have anything to do with whether 1, 10, 30, or 300 people are on board?

    Train A going 10 miles with 30 people = 10 train miles and 300 passenger miles.

    Train B going the same 10 miles with 10 people = 10 train miles and 100 passenger miles.

    If they’re both in one accident the accident rate for Train A is 1 per 300 passenger miles, while the accident rate for Train B is 1 per 100 passenger miles – three times more accident-prone.

    One train, traveling the same track the same distance appears 3 times safer than the other when passenger rates are calculated, when in reality they each pose the exact same risk, which is shown when train miles are calculated.

    Passenger mile statistics is how our transportation agencies hide their atrocious safety stats.

    What would people say if someone suggested an accurate way of suggesting the risk a drunk driver poses on the road is to calculate the accidents rate based on the number of passengers in the car?

  • Bike Girl grew up right next to some train tracks that run right down the middle of the road. No grade separation.

    The tracks went right by homes, playgrounds, and several elementary schools. But somehow, no one got hurt. No children. No cars. Nothing.

    Bike Girl thinks there is a growing lack of accountability among drivers and parents. People should know that when a many ton thing is barreling down at them, they should not try to beat it. They will lose.

    Bike Girl thinks that the people living in South L-A are smart enough to know that.

    Just because the track is there, does not mean someone will get hit.

  • Damien thinks that it is not accurate to suggest the only people who get hit by trains are not “smart,” and unfair to expect one community along a line to accept a hazard while others are not.

  • “Damien thinks that it is not accurate to suggest the only people who get hit by trains are not ‘smart,'”

    Seriously, look at the actual cases involved when somebody not already on a train gets hit by a train. Every case I’ve seen involved somebody trying to beat a signal, commit suicide, or otherwise blatantly disobeying obvious warning devices. Maybe these people are geniuses the rest of the time, but when they’re getting hit by a train, they’re almost always acting stupid at the time.

  • Damien – risk is measured by passenger-mile because we care about people getting hurt, not vehicles. A van carrying 11 people plunging off a cliff makes the news; 11 cars getting into non-injury fender-benders do not. What is the risk for 100,000 people riding their cars for 10 miles vs. the risk for 100,000 people riding the train for 10 miles? That’s an actual relevant statistic. Your “per mile operated” statistic totally distorts that. For the sake of argument and ease of calculation, let’s say that 2 people ride in every car (I know, it’s not realistic, but this is an order-of-magnitude calculation) and 200 people ride in every train. To go by a million miles operated, we’d be looking at the risk for 200,000 people riding in cars for 10 miles vs. the risk for 20,000,000 people riding the train for 10 miles. That is why your statistics are bunk.

  • Adam,

    You want to solely measure the risks to passengers, while I and almost everyone else measures the risk to all people, which is why passenger miles is, as you say, “bunk.”

    In the history of the Blue Line, I’m about 95% certain no train passenger has ever been killed. Comparatively, between the start of the line to June ’08 on the tracks 90 people have been killed and there have been 821 accidents.

    Using your logic, there could be 900 deaths and 8,210 accidents on the tracks, as long as there was never a passenger death, the system would be safe.

    Just look at your post – you’re solely discussing the risk to RIDERS. I’m talking about to the general public, which includes the 100% of people who walk, ride and drive on our streets.

    The equivalent would be calculating automotive deaths/accidents rates by only considering those doing the hitting, not those being hit, like the pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists hit by cars.

    Most people make no distinction between the blood of the 99 people that were killed on Metrolink TRACKS from Jan ’93 – December ’07, than they do the 26 people who were killed on a Metrolink TRAIN two Friday’s ago. Only transportation agencies who want to spin their modes of transit as “safe” so they can continue building their systems cheaply and unsafely.

    Both the Chatsworth accident and the 99 track deaths are tragedies. Different types of mitigation would have been needed to prevent them. But simply equipping the train vehicles with appropriate systems so the people in the train don’t die, and ignoring the hazards of those that have to interact with it outside the train vehicles (including the riders themselves), is not most people’s definition of an appropriate safety mitigation plan.

    These are transport systems built to operate in existing environments. And the point I share with every other rail safety expert is that the hazards of those environments are exponentially increased when these systems are integrated within them at-grade, regardless of whether the trains are carrying 10, 30, or 300 people.

    And again, the number of daily Blue Line trains is in the range of 250-300 PER DAY. That’s the equivalent of one lane of traffic, going in one direction, at one busy intersection in 20 mins during rush hour.

    Incidentally, the accident and fatality rates in MTA’s own report (which are atrocious) measure the accident rate by train miles.

  • Adam,

    All I’m saying is that when people are injured/killed in accidents in any and every other mode of transportation no one ever suggests the person injured/dead was not smart. I only hear it from rail advocates – or more specifically at-grade rail advocates, in particular in this context – those who have cynically suggested it’s okay to subject South L.A. to these hazards, even though Culver City is being spared, and those who suggest otherwise are suggesting South L.A. people are stupid.

    As someone said in another post in another forum, that’s exactly the type of argument that was used by pro-segregationists during the time of integration: that black folk would be admitting their inferiority by demanding equal access and treatment. But I digress.

    The point is, they’re called accidents for a reason. And when they involve trains one is exponentially more likely to be seriously injured and killed. Again, the reasons for this are simple: trains can’t stop on a dime, they can’t turn to avert collisions, and they’re hundreds of times heavier than anything else on the road.

    I could get into the specifics as to how or why people can be caught in circumstances that lead to confusion or more risk taking behavior, but really my bottom line is expressed in the first sentence above.

  • OK — you have a point about risks to passengers vs. risks to pedestrians.

    But you have to understand that when you immediately make the at-grade vs. separated argument about race, you can guarantee two things: (a) you will get a lot of attention, and (b) your claims will be put under intense scrutiny.

    Tell me, are there a lot of rich white people living in the vicinity of the Green Line?

    The Blue Line is partially separated and partially at grade through much of its route. Ielevated in poorer North Long Beach, and then at-grade in more middle-class Wrigley, and then mixed in with more traffic in the more urban downtown. I don’t see any correlation between wealth and grade spearation status.

    Or the Gold Line — it’s elevated some, below grade elsewhere, and if you can find a correlation between that and the wealth of the surrounding neighborhood, it’s news to me. It’s separated in Chinatown. At-grade in working-class Highland Park. At-grade in conservative, rich, white South Pasadena. At-grade in some of Pasadena, and then separated where it forms something of a division between the desirable and less-desirable parts of the city. The Eastside extension is underground through parts of Boyle Heights.

    The Orange Line is at grade its entire route through the middle-class San Fernando Valley.

    The Red Line is all underground, as it runs through the densest part of the city, some parts poor, some not-so-poor.

    The fact of the matter is that there are a lot of reasons why a particular section of track is at grade or otherwise, and to boil it all down to racism is insulting and inflammatory. The existing evidence doesn’t point to any kind of systematic racism in the routing of the Metro Rail. The very first line, the Blue Line, served heavily-minority South L.A.

    This is why you’re being met with a lot of resistance: you’re accusing people of racism where no evidence exists of it. You’re offending people.

  • Marcotico

    Hey Adam and Damien,

    I think it is important to again make the distinction between racism, and environmental racism (which many trans. planners call environmental injustice). Here’s one definition of environmental justice, as offered by the Trans. Research Board “the fair treatment of all poeple in terms of the distribution of benefits and costs arising from transportation projects, programs, and policies.” The manual further elaborates taht “..fair and equitable processes would be expected to result in fair and equitable outcomes. Outcome equity is therefore an appropriate way to evaluate the environmental justice of distributive effects.”

    What I take away is that environmental racism, does not mean that the proponents are intentionally racist, it means that the outcomes of their actions may have racist results. The second thing is that there may be a number of valid technical and economic reasons why a certain course of action may make sense, but if that course of action has a racist effect then it needs to be mitigated.

    I agree with something I’ve heard Damien say before which is that pointing to all these other examples (Goldline, Blueline) doesn’t necessarily prove that the Expo phase I is environmentally just, but rather that Metro has made these mistakes before and they’ve turned out okay. For example from a technical standpoint the Goldline runs 15 mphs slower than it can because the agency did not have the money to install double gates at the street crossings, but knew it couldn’t get the buy in from residents for horns at each crossing. A smart, politically expedient solution, but not a perfect solution by any means. I’m torn, because I really want LA to have a rail system, but by making it in hodge podge fashion we’re constantly making the same compromises.

    Lastly, the green line doesn’t demonstrate a lack of environmental racism, because it is a complete anomoly, in that it was legally required as part of the construction of the 105, and that is why it is grade separated.

  • Marcotico

    Oh yeah, and of course there is racism v. classism. So a certain group of people may experience higher costs and lower benefits because they are poor or because they are a community of color. This is a trickier and much larger question than the transportation planning realm. All environmental justice analysis will determine is whether they as a community regularly experience the unjust conditions.

  • Marcotico

    PPS. Regarding your previous debate about operating miles versus passenger miles. Really you should present both sets of data, because both data are valid for all the reasons you both cited. No system of measurement should preclude another system, that is spinning data. Presenting both sets is the best way to develop a nuanced perspective.

  • This whole Expo Line debate online is so insane.

    What sort of solution are we talking about here?

    I am of the opinion that the railway people need to bribe the snot out of the neighborhoods they want to put this train through. That would mean: parks, a responsive local government, handouts to nonprofits, handouts to arts and cultural programs, easy business loans, livable streets initiatives, health care, financial planning, and tons of free training.

    All of that would be way, way, cheaper than a grade separation – and in the end, it would do more to save lives and make things better in the area.

    Basically, why not treat this South L.A. neighborhood the way we treat richer neighborhoods? It is in all of our interests to see this rail line built quickly. This “safety” argument is, to me, a political red herring.

    Buy into the area, spend some cash and staff time, and watch the opposition to this project whither. What is so wrong with that?

  • anonymouse

    If we’re still talking about Expo and that high school, how about this solution: during the hour or so during the day when there are actually large numbers of students outside, impose a temporary speed restriction of 15 mph through the crossing. It doesn’t require very much at all, probably just a sign with a light that flashes when the restriction is in effect.

  • Jim Croter


    Sounds like a great solution. It’s too bad it seems like the community hasn’t brought those things to the table. But these folks are NIMBY’s who don’t want the line, plain and simple.

  • Jim Croter,

    Oh come on! What a lame cop-out! They are not the ones proposing a new train line in their back yard.

    Buy the neighborhood out with goodies. DUH! Give them what every community wants, and it is sure to get rid of this whole canard of an issue.

    I have been surprised at how blind and insulting the transportation advocacy world has been to ideas like this. Wake up! Choo-choo trains and buses do not come before people and community (for most sane human beings).

    How much would this type of largess cost relative to a huge court battle or a grade separation? It would cost a pittance.

    I have no real power to affect this sort of thing, but it seems like such an obvious solution to this problem that I can’t believe I’m the only one thinking thoughts like this. There have to be other people more involved in this mini-debacle who have similar ideas. I hope they are able to find some leverage and steer things in a better direction.

  • Jim Croter

    How is that a cop-out? Yet buying out the community to folks who live in the community will seem like a cop-out to them as well.
    It seems as through this conversation that FixExpo don’t want any concession other than the grade separation.

  • Cop out is an idiom meaning to avoid taking responsibility for an action or to avoid fulfilling a duty.

    If you want to build a train line through a community, it is your duty to do it right. You can bulldoze over that community’s concerns (which has been done before, and is leading to a big lawsuit right now); you can deal with their concerns (grade separation is waaaay too expensive); or, you can buy them out with good governance and good will.

    You tell me which option you’d rather take, and how much it will cost.

  • I should add, FixExpo won’t matter when hundreds of other people are having their community group re-invigorated with cash and government resources. FixExpo won’t matter to voters in the area when their streets are clean and their quality of life is being looked after. FixExpo won’t matter to local businesses when their business outlook is measurably improved.

    What is so wrong with actually, you know, doing some homework before railroading a project through a neighborhood?

    This is like a freshman year poli. sci. class before they read Machiavelli. Come on!

  • and i wonder why i don’t blog anymore


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