Accidents point up dangers of rail transit

by Randal O'Toole


The recent Los Angeles commuter train disaster that killed eleven
people has brought national attention to the safety problems inherent
in most rail transit lines. Yet the Los Angeles tragedy is only one
of many recent rail accidents. Others include:

* On January 29, a Denver light-rail train collided with an
ambulance, seriously injuring the two paramedics on board. There was
no word as to the fate of the person they were trying to reach. The
accident caused the train to derail and smash a storefront, injuring
several other people. You can read about this and see photos at,1413,36~53~2682289,00.html

* On January 26, Houston's 7.5-mile "wham-bam tram" had its 75th
collision with an automobile in little more than a year of operation,
and then, within two days, was involved in two more accidents.
Houston's light-rail has had accidents an average of once every four
days, which is an extreme case. But Houston's transit agency has the
same callous attitude found in other cities, blaming all but a
handful of accidents on the drivers or pedestrians. (The January 26
accident was probably the rail operator's fault, as witnesses agree
the automobile had the green light.) You can find the Wham-Bam Tram
Ram Counter at .

* On January 2, a Portland light-rail car smashed into and totaled a
brand-new, $300,000 fire engine that was also racing to someone's
rescue. Emergency vehicles in Portland have "signal priority"
(meaning they automatically turn traffic signals in their favor), but
the rail operator was unable to stop in time. Light rail also has
signal priority, second only to emergency vehicles, so the operator
probably expected the light to change to green. See if you can
recognize any of what is left of the fire engine in the top right
photo at .

All of these accidents point out the key flaw in rail transit: It is
simply not safe to put vehicles weighing hundreds of thousands of
pounds in the same streets as pedestrians that weigh 100 to 200
pounds and vehicles that typically weigh a few thousand pounds. Heavy
rail (subways and elevateds) avoid this flaw by being completely
separated from autos and pedestrians, but are still vulnerable to
suicides. Light rail, which often operates in the same streets as
autos, and commuter trains, which often cross streets, simply are not

Aside from being lighter than railcars (and thus less likely to do
harm when they hit you), buses have the advantage that they can stop
quicker. Rubber on pavement has more friction than steel wheel on
steel rail, and the typical bus has many more square inches of wheel
on pavement than a railcar. No matter how good the brakes on the
railcar, it is physically impossible for it to stop as fast as a bus,
for if the brakes are too good the wheels will just slide.

This is why light rail kills, on average, about three times as many
people for every billion passenger miles it carries as buses.
Commuter rail kills about twice as many people as buses. Only heavy
rail is safer than buses, and then only if you don't count suicides.

As noted in the Vanishing Automobile (p. 372), autos on city streets
are a somewhat less dangerous than commuter rail, while autos on
urban freeways a little less dangerous than buses. Safe
transportation thus means more freeways and buses, not more rail

The recent Los Angeles crash was the result of a suicide attempt gone
wrong. But this should not absolve the transit system. Why should we
be happy to give depressed people another way to commit suicide? When
natural gas was reformulated a few decades ago to make it less
deadly, gas-related suicides declined by the thousands, but other
forms of suicide did NOT increase to compensate. This indicates that
proper design can reduce suicides and improper design can increase
suicides by making them too easy.

Of course, the fact that the Los Angeles accident was caused by a
suicide attempt doesn't mean that Los Angeles trains are otherwise
safe. In recent years Los Angeles' commuter-rail trains have averaged
nearly five times as many deaths per billion passenger miles as
buses, giving them one of the worst safety records in the industry.

The worst record, by the way, is held by Los Angeles light-rail
lines, which kill nine times as many people per passenger mile as
buses. Download "Great Rail Disasters" from
to see the safety record of almost every rail system in the country.

People who advocate light rail and commuter rail should ask
themselves: Do they really want to be responsible for the extra
deaths, not to mention property damage, that their expensive transit
systems will cause? Ironically, the people who favor rail transit are
often the same people who insist that life is sacred and priceless.
On safety grounds alone, light-rail and commuter-rail lines should
simply not be built.

Randal O'Toole The Thoreau Institute

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