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85% of Blue Line Deaths Occur on Fastest Segment

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly 85% of the deaths on the Metro Blue Line occur where the trains run fastest along the deadly light-rail line connecting downtown Los Angeles with Long Beach, an analysis by The Times shows.

The fewest Blue Line accidents--but by far the most deaths--have occurred over the last nine years along a 12-mile segment of the line where trains routinely go through urban neighborhoods and intersections at a legally allowed 55 mph, according to an analysis of Metropolitan Transportation Authority accident statistics.

It was that segment of the line where a Blue Line train traveling at 55 mph Nov. 27 collided with a taxicab that had turned illegally into an intersection, killing all six people in the taxi.

MTA records show that more accidents--but far fewer deaths--occurred on segments of the Blue Line in downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach. In those neighborhoods, trains travel along the center of city streets and compete for road space with cars, trucks and pedestrians, thus requiring reduced speeds of no more than 35 mph.

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According to MTA records, which cover the period from July 1990 to September 1999, there were 233 accidents on the Los Angeles segment, where the train runs along Flower Street and Washington Boulevard, often amid the crush of city traffic. There were three deaths during that period.

In contrast, there were fewer than half as many accidents--111--on the faster-running segment, which goes through South-Central Los Angeles, the Watts/Willowbrook area and Compton, but there were 40 deaths.

Four people died on the Long Beach segment in 142 accidents.

The link between speed and the Blue Line’s safety record has long been debated.

Some blame speed as a contributing factor to the deaths. But MTA safety chief Paul Lennon said in a statement Wednesday that operating procedures have been examined by outside experts and “speed has not been identified by them as an issue.”

A comparison of the Blue Line with other cities shows that its trains travel at a rate of speed that is among the fastest in the nation, according to records on file with the Federal Transit Administration. In a survey of 17 of the nation’s light-rail systems, comparing actual rates of speed during 1997, only St. Louis, with an average of 25 mph, was higher than the Blue Line’s 22.7 mph.

Speed of Trains Is Criticized

The California Public Utilities Commission reported in October that more people died in Blue Line accidents during 1998 than on California’s four other light-rail systems combined.

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That year, the PUC reported nine deaths on the Blue Line and a total of eight deaths on light-rail systems in San Diego, Sacramento, San Francisco and Santa Clara County.

Critics, neighborhood activists and at least one driver argue that the trains move far too fast for the neighborhoods they traverse.

“The trains come through too fast,” said the Rev. Lowe Barry, spokesman for Ministers Against Metro Rail Accidents, which has organized vigils and demonstrations for accident victims in South-Central Los Angeles and Compton. “A slowing of the trains would save a significant number of fatalities.”

But MTA safety experts contend that the Blue Line’s high rate of deaths and injuries is caused by the often illegal and inexplicable behavior of motorists and pedestrians along the 22-mile line between downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach. MTA officials contend that every fatal accident was caused by motorists or pedestrians ignoring warning signals, gates or traffic lights.

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The MTA has been tweaking the system with safety improvements almost from its opening in 1990, hoping to reduce accidents and injuries. Enforcement of traffic laws has been stepped up and MTA officials are now running a demonstration project at one intersection, using four barrier gates instead of the conventional two. The MTA also has waged public information campaigns and experimented with mechanical safety devices, such as altering signals and using different-sounding horns.

MTA executives and outside experts say that the expense of light rail is justified only if it offers a high-speed alternative to cars and buses. That means maintaining speeds of 55 mph for long stretches--trusting that gates and warning signals will do their jobs and keep cars and pedestrians out as the trains pass through.

“We think 55 mph is a reasonable speed, given the intent of the system,” said Paul Lennon, MTA’s safety chief, during an interview after November’s accident.

Lennon calls light rail a “viable alternative” to cars, and wonders how many more motorists would be on freeways, possibly endangering other motorists, “if we weren’t operating at a decent level of speed to make it attractive enough to people to make them leave their cars at home.”

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As far as ridership is concerned, the Blue Line is a success story, providing commuters with 59,000 trips a day, because “it gets people where they want to go reasonably quickly,” Lennon said.

Martin Wachs, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley, in the past has been a vocal critic of other MTA policies. But, as far as rail safety goes, he echoed what others outside the system say: MTA has been extremely attentive to safety issues, doing such things as retrofitting grade crossings with gates and additional lights. “They’ve done everything to industry standards,” Wachs said.

“Everyone wants people out of cars and to use public transit,” Wachs said. “To slow them down is to weaken their ability to compete with the automobile.”

Wachs, like others, believes the central problem is a behavioral one.

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“It is quite mysterious why drivers would drive around gates and ignore the horns of speeding trains,” he said.

But the MTA and its Blue Line have critics, including at least one Blue Line driver, who contend that reducing speed would save lives.

“Everyone wrings their hands and says, ‘Isn’t it a tragedy? This idiot tried to beat the train,’ ” said Thomas A. Rubin, an Oakland-based transportation consultant who once served as controller-treasurer of the old Southern California Rapid Transit Agency, which evolved into the MTA. In that post, Rubin was responsible for risk management, including safety, for the Blue Line.

He agreed that people contribute to the accident toll, but argues that the vagaries of human conduct are a given. “It is a behavior problem, however, it is a behavior problem that is very well understood and should be understood by anyone planning a transit system,” he said.

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Accident records kept by the MTA are broken down according to the Blue Line’s three north/south segments--two relatively short, so-called street-running segments in Los Angeles and Long Beach that bookend a longer, 12-mile segment from Washington Boulevard to Willow Street in Long Beach.

The total running time between downtown Long Beach and the 7th Street/Metro station in Los Angeles is about 54 minutes.

Death Still Haunts Driver

In what some see as further evidence of the connection between speed and fatalities, the last 17 accidents that resulted in deaths involved southbound trains.

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This is key because a number of the Blue Line stations are what the industry calls “far side” stations, meaning that they are south or on the far side of an intersection. Trains arrive at far side stations across intersections at higher rates of speed than northbound trains, which much stop to take on and release passengers before starting into intersections.

Motorists in intersections or pedestrians running to catch trains appear more likely to get involved in accidents with southbound trains.

The Watts station is one such station, located just south of 103rd Street. Three pedestrians have died at the intersection since 1996.

Since the report was published, six more people died in the taxicab accident, bringing the death toll since 1990 to 53.

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None of that comes as news to a former MTA driver who took early retirement after operating a train that struck a pedestrian several years ago.

Agreeing to be interviewed only on the condition that his name not be used, the former train operator said he believes that numerous deaths could have been avoided had the trains been slower.

Tormented by nightmares, the operator said there is no doubt in his mind that the person he ran over would still be alive if he were going slower.

“My life has been changed from day one. It was devastating,” said the former train operator, who is in therapy and said he keeps reliving the accident although it occurred several years ago. In one recurring nightmare, he said he dreams that he sees the pedestrian in front of him and pushes his feet through the floor of the train, hoping to hasten the braking process by dragging his feet along the rocky rail bed.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Fatal Line

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Most of the deaths on the Los Angeles Metro Blue Line occur where the trains run up to 55 mph, the highest speed allowed. Below are the areas where deaths have occurred over the last nine years, and the number in each area.

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Sources: Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Times news archives

Rail Speeds

The speed of Los Angeles light-rail trains has become a controversial issue. Following is a comparison of average speeds reported by cities operating light-rail trains.

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Average speed

St. Louis: 25.0

Los Angeles: 22.7

San Diego: 22.1

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Sacramento: 18.2

Baltimore: 17.2

Boston: 15.0

Philadelphia: 12.1

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San Francisco: 10.2


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