Where Rapid Transit Means Constant Risk


It's Michael Walden's first week as the operator of a Los Angeles Metro Blue Line train. He's a former bus driver, but the differences between bus and rail are like night and day.

Accidents are commonplace, and deaths to motorists and pedestrians along the Blue Line are the highest among California's light-rail systems.

Trains can reach speeds of up to 55 mph while buses are stalled in traffic. After the trains reach top speed, it takes them more than the length of a football field to stop. And, in the 54-minute, 22-mile run from downtown Los Angeles to Long Beach, Walden will cross 101 streets, breezing past senior citizen centers, shopping malls, low-income housing projects, parks, swap meets and industrial strips.

Virtually all of the deaths are the result of miscalculations or carelessness by pedestrians or motorists, transit police investigators say. Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials are providing system operators with training on how to be aware of such hazards, but point out that these dangers inherent in an urban system at ground level are often beyond their control.

Critics call the setup a formula for disaster, and the line's track record bears them out.

47 Deaths in 10 Years

Since the Blue Line began operating in 1990, 47 pedestrians or motorists have lost their lives after being hit by the light-rail train, the result of more than 400 accidents, according to state and local records kept for light-rail systems.

On this day, Robert Johnson, who supervises the training of train operators, is hovering over Walden's shoulder.

Peering down the track with Walden, it is easy to see the problem: Cars and trucks on both sides of the train head for the same intersection. Kids straddle bicycles, waiting impatiently for the train to pass. People push shopping carts toward the tracks. Commuters stand dangerously close to the tracks as they wait for Walden to stop.

"You see that car coming alongside? What do you think he is doing?" Johnson asks, reciting his training mantra. "Is he accelerating? What do you think he might be doing, trying to turn left?" The car stops. "If the vehicle starts to move an inch, you are on the horn, you are on the brake."

Johnson, a hard-nosed, veteran train operator who looks out at the world from under an MTA baseball cap, pounds into his students' heads what is obvious the first time they step into a Blue Line cab: The trains have no steering wheel.

Fixed as they are to rails, trains can't turn away from an accident. That creates a helpless feeling for operators because if they see someone or something on the tracks ahead of them, all they can do is brake and wait for the impact, Johnson says.

Listen, in the spare language of a police report, to the Blue Line's William McClendon, who in June was operating a train that struck and killed Troy Well Young, a pedestrian, at 103rd Street and Grandee Avenue in Watts.

"I was traveling 35 to 40 mph when I observed the man walking east along the south sidewalk area," the 55-year-old train operator said. McClendon said he had been sounding his horn, but Young didn't turn away. "I began emergency braking. He kept walking. He was looking south. There was nothing else I could do. I turned my head and heard the impact."

Johnson hopes Walden will finish his career without an accident, but he is less than optimistic. Among other lessons, Walden will learn the phrase "pray for the dead," a grim mnemonic reminder of the cadence that trainmen use for their warning sequence: two long horn blasts, followed by a short one, then another long one.

"It isn't a matter of if you have an accident, it is when," he says matter-of-factly.

So many accidents happen that the Blue Line has claimed more lives over the last five years than the state's other four light-rail systems combined, according to Public Utilities Commission records. These statistics do not include heavy rail, such as MetroLink or Amtrak trains.

Nationally, the casualties are so high that Los Angeles accounts for a disproportionate share of America's light-rail accidents, according to the Federal Transit Administration.

Officials seeking to improve the Blue Line's safety record acknowledge that some problems are not fixable, such as the Blue Line's location in Los Angeles County's densely populated urban and industrial core. They say that taking the trains off the streets and creating a grade separation would dramatically help, but assert that there is no money available to elevate the tracks or put them below street level.

Working to Eliminate Casualties

Locked into what now is a mature, 10-year-old system that defies a massive overhaul, the MTA struggles to bring down Blue Line casualties with rigorous training of operators like Walden, aggressive law enforcement, and constant tinkering with fences, horn sounds, signal lights, traffic gates and other safety hardware.

Swing gates, which pedestrians have to pull back, rather than push forward, have been installed at some stations. The sound of the horn has been changed. So-called "T-signals," which signal train operators, are being replaced because some motorists were confused and thought the T meant turn.

Trials are underway with street barrier gates that block all four lanes of traffic at intersections, rather than the conventional practice of two. More and more video systems are being added to intersections so that scofflaws can be photographed running red lights, tracked down and prosecuted.

MTA executives are also working with Union Pacific, which runs long freight trains parallel to the Blue Line tracks. Accidents are often caused by people trying to get around the freight trains, only to walk or drive into an oncoming Blue Line train.

The MTA has "gone well beyond" the safety requirements of regulatory agencies, said Lou Hubaud, a career MTA executive with responsibility for Blue Line safety. "This agency has gone way out there in reaching to the public to make it safer for them. We have done more than anyone in the country to make grade crossings safer."

There is some evidence that the steps may be paying off.

In 1998, there were 10 fatalities involving Blue Line trains. This year, there have been four.

But critics say the MTA is not doing enough.

Even four deaths, they say, should be a red flag. During the five-year period from 1994 to the end of 1998, light-rail lines in Sacramento and Santa Clara County reported only two deaths between them to the PUC. Last year, San Francisco's rail system, despite running more than twice the passenger miles as Los Angeles' system, had three pedestrian and motor vehicle related deaths, according to commission records.

Similar differences exist nationally, although voluntary reporting to the Federal Transit Administration by cities such as Atlanta, Baltimore, St. Louis and Salt Lake City appears to be less exacting than that required by the PUC.

Critics believe that slowing down the trains and creating more grade separations, meaning raising the tracks above or burying them below street level, would help.

"You need to be looking at grade separations," said Wendell Cox, a national transportation consultant who was a member of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission from 1977 to 1985 when much of the planning for the Blue Line occurred. "It's not fair to blame motorists. It's a terrible cop-out to blame pedestrians or kids, to say they were at fault."

"Speed equals danger," said Tom Rubin, former risk management chief for the old Southern California Rapid Transit District, which was merged into the MTA.

"The basic problem is very simple: You don't put a high-speed rail line through a very dense urban area, such as South-Central Los Angeles and Long Beach, unless you have it absolutely totally grade separated. By that I mean you don't have crossing streets," said Rubin, based in Oakland. "Total grade separation would eliminate 90% plus of fatalities and 100% of train-auto collisions."

Money woes and system upheaval are huge barriers to the kind of massive capital works project that would be required to either bury or elevate the tracks.

Commuters now make 55,000 trips a day on the Blue Line. Because many of them are onetime bus riders who were switched to the trains, shutting down the train for any length of time would create serious problems because some of their old bus lines have been canceled.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, chairwoman of the MTA governing board, agrees with Cox and Rubin that grade separation would help. But she said money is a problem. She pointed to budget problems that brought a premature end to the county's subway construction program.

"Obviously, if you have over-ground or below-ground rail you'd have fewer accidents," she said. But, these days, she said, "Either you have no rail or you have it at grade."

With no major improvements in sight, those who ride or live close to the Blue Line are struggling to cope, sometimes none too pleasantly.

"I heard a thump and then saw a man's hat fly by the window and I said, 'Oh, my God, I think we've hit someone,' " said a longtime Blue Line rider, recalling one experience. A resident of Long Beach, she works at a downtown Los Angeles bank and asked that her name not be used.

Experienced Blue Line riders say accident-caused delays have led them to develop taxicab pools with fellow commuters for shared rides home. They map out alternate bus routes. They know relatives who can pick them up if things get bad enough.

Despite the accidents, there are complaints that the MTA is too slow in moving commuters off stricken trains.

"They have accidents all the time," said Compton resident Grace Flowers, who also works at a downtown Los Angeles bank. "I don't blame the MTA, but they should have contingency plans. We can be stuck on this thing two, three hours."

What seems to strike a personal chord with those familiar with the Blue Line is that many of those who lost their lives or were hit by the train were engaged in commonplace comings and goings.

They were rushing to catch a train. Or hurrying off a platform at the end of a trip, thinking about home. Or they were walking in a daze, perhaps with a little too much liquor in them. A 13-year-old boy lost his life running after a ball.

Masses are still said for Rosa Cebellos, a 66-year-old woman who was the Blue Line's first fatality, at St. Lawrence Brindisi, a Roman Catholic church in Watts a block from the Blue Line tracks.

Cebellos was on her way to Mass, clutching a prayer book, when she was hit by a train.

Wajeha Bilal, a community activist who works out of a small office in the historic Watts train station at 103rd Street, gets so agitated that she often rushes out to the tracks and pulls people back because they are standing too close to the tracks.

Bilal, part of the Watts economic development effort, said she has been pleading for years with the MTA to have a crossing guard stationed at the intersection to hold back the human tide that surges down 103rd every day.

"We need a crossing guard here very bad. They said they had no budget for it," said Bilal, standing a few feet from where Troy Young was hit last June.

As if to make her case, elementary-age children, just released from some of the four schools in the area, pour into the 103rd Street corridor.

"You kids, get off those tracks!" she shouts, seeing some of the children scampering along the tracks, playfully picking up stones from the roadbed or trying to balance themselves on the rails.


Danger on the Tracks

Metro Blue Line accidents consistently cause more injuries than California's other light-rail systems.

Train accident deaths 1994-98

Los Angeles: 20

Sacramento: 1

San Diego: 11

San Francisco: 3*

Santa Clara: 1

* 1994-96 data not available

Train accidents per 100,000 miles

Los Angeles: 1.9

Sacramento: 1.5

San Diego: 1

San Francisco: 0.9

Santa Clara: 1.4

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