Los Angeles Times
By Douglas P. Shuit
February 22, 2000
If anyone should know the dangers of the Metro Blue Line inside and out, it would be Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke.
As head of the powerful Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Burke plays a leading role in setting policy for operating the Blue Line, whose trains operate along city streets and have killed 53 people since it opened in 1990. That is by far the most deaths for any light rail line in the state and is believed to be the most in the nation.
And, as someone who lives and works in the area served by the Blue Line, Burke regularly experiences the anxiety motorists face when crossing the tracks. Getting caught inside the gates when a train comes is a constant fear.
"I have not actually been stuck [inside the gates], but I have been concerned about getting stuck," she said. "If there is any traffic ahead of you as you start going across, there is a tremendous potential of getting caught. So, I tell you . . . I fly across the tracks."
Burke's comments are informative because the MTA, after a two- month in-house safety analysis, is essentially moving forward with its current Blue Line policy, which she indicates will not make her feel much safer.
Burke and others on the MTA's board of directors are finding that there are few dramatic moves they can make to improve safety on the heavily used rail line, which provides riders with as many as 57,000 trips a day on the 22-mile run between downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach.
The analysis, prompted by the deaths of six people Nov. 27 and Times stories exploring safety issues on the Blue Line, included an estimate that creating a grade separation--in effect, moving the tracks off the street--would cost as much as $1.6 billion. That is far more than the district can afford, and represents roughly twice the Blue Line's original construction cost.
That leaves MTA managers with a game plan that involves continuing the same policies that they have been following for years, with some tweaking here and there.
In an effort to reduce the number of so-called "S" turns, in which motorists use open traffic lanes to drive around closed traffic gates, the MTA plans to install four gates, rather than the conventional two, at as many as two crossings a year. Traffic signals also will be upgraded. And a stepped-up program of televised, public safety announcements, movie trailers, radio messages, billboards and school safety programs will be implemented.
At Imperial Highway, where there have been a number of accidents involving Blue Line trains, the city of Los Angeles, county, MTA and Caltrans are jointly financing construction of a $20-million bridge for motor vehicle traffic over the railroad tracks.
The MTA's safety program also would apply to the first phase of the 13.7-mile Pasadena light rail line. The Pasadena line is being built at street level, so will face similar traffic problems during its run through Lincoln Heights, Highland Park, South Pasadena and Pasadena. The line is being built by the Pasadena Blue Line Construction Authority, but is being financed and will be operated by the MTA.
During a hearing on Blue Line issues before the MTA's operations committee last week, Burke made a point of saying that the best chance of paying for grade separations comes during construction, because once a system is built the costs become prohibitive. Still, although she made it clear that she thinks grade separations would save lives, she said the MTA doesn't have money for grade separations on that system.
Residents along the proposed Pasadena route are becoming increasingly restive. Jim Leong, a retired businessman representing the Mount Washington Assn., pleaded for a grade separation during the operations committee hearing, although the Pasadena Blue Line Construction Authority has rejected the possibility of major changes to the project.
The Mount Washington Assn. is reconsidering its conditional support for the Pasadena rail line, in large part because of the Los Angeles line's safety record, Leong said. "When the Pasadena line was planned, we didn't have the experience of the Los Angeles Blue Line. Now we have 53 deaths. That is scaring some people," Leong said.
Richard Thorpe, chief executive officer of the Pasadena Blue Line Construction Authority, said he believes conditions on the Eastside are different from those on the Los Angeles-to-Long Beach line.
For one thing, the Pasadena line will not have freight trains running alongside its own trains, as does the Los Angeles line, Thorpe said. Nor will there be streets running parallel to the trains. Some of those who have studied the Los Angeles line believe the slowness of the Union Pacific freight trains frustrates motorists and causes them to take risks they might not ordinarily take. Left turns in front of trains are a leading contributor to Los Angeles Blue Line accidents.
MTA authorities have consistently argued that they believe the large number of deaths and injuries on the Los Angeles Blue Line is caused by risky behavior by pedestrians and motorists, who flout traffic laws and warning signals as they cross in front of trains.
An analysis of Blue Line accident records by The Times indicated that speed may be a contributor. It found that 85% of the deaths have occurred in the high-speed corridor, where trains go through intersections at 55 mph. An analysis comparing the Blue Line with light rail systems across the country found that the MTA trains operate at one of the highest average rates of speed. The Times also found that the last 18 deaths have all involved trains traveling south, whose speed tends to be higher through intersections.
MTA safety chief Paul Lennon, who put together the in-house analysis, said after the operations committee hearing that he is not recommending any changes in the speed of trains. He made it clear he still believes the main problem is that people go around closed crossing gates or ignore warning signals and horns. MTA investigations have held victims to have been at fault in all cases.
"The 55-mph speed I think is a very reasonable safe transit speed," he said. Influencing his belief is a fear that if the trains are slowed appreciably, the riders will return to cars. "My concern is that people might get off that train, find a $200 car and become a statistic someplace else. We are in the lifesaving business, as far as I am concerned."
Lennon said the MTA will continue to look into factors contributing to the string of accidents on the southbound tracks.
Burke said she is not satisfied with the steps Lennon is recommending. She said further steps must be taken "to prevent some of these accidents," but had no concrete proposals. Although the costs are prohibitive, she said, "I believe we have to look at some alternative for grade separation."