The MTA/Expo Authority and our elected officials claim they’re building an Expo Line that will have a safety record more like the Pasadena Gold Line, which is far from what most reasonable people consider “safe,” but less deadly than the Blue Line (the deadliest light rail line in the country). Their statements would be laughable if the consequences – failing to address serious safety hazards – were not so severe. In fact, in July of 2007, Fix Expo sent a letter to MTA/Expo Authority executive Rick Thorpe, essentially requesting he admit the differences, and he remarkably refused to answer our questions.
In his prepared testimony before the California Public Utilities Commission, Professor Najmedin Meshkati, an internationally renowned expert in human factors in complex technological system failures and the creator of the USC’s Transportation System Safety Program, identified the following six differences between MTA’s proposed Expo Line, and existing Pasadena Gold Line and Blue Line in explaining why the Blue Line is a far more appropriate comparison to the risks and hazards that will be present on the Expo Line. The following are extrapolations of his six bullet points.
1. Almost all streets with high vehicular cross-traffic volume are grade separated on the Pasadena Gold Line (“PGL”), while streets with comparably high vehicular cross-traffic volume on the Expo Line are at-grade.
Only the Colorado Blvd and Lake Avenue crossings on the PGL have high vehicular cross-traffic volume comparable to the Expo Line crossings at Adams/Flower, Vermont/Exposition, Western/Exposition and Crenshaw/Exposition. Yet, both Colorado Blvd and Lake Avenue are grade separated, while Adams, Vermont, Western and Crenshaw along with many other crossings with high vehicular cross-traffic volumes along the Expo Line are street level (at-grade) without even basic crossing gates. In fact, few cross streets have vehicular cross-traffic volumes as high as the above Expo Line crossings on even the Blue Line, yet accidents and deaths still frequently occur at the intersections.
2. Several long portions of the PGL are fully grade separated, while the overwhelming majority of the Expo Line from Downtown LA to Hauser Blvd is at-grade, like the Blue Line.
There are 41 grade separations on the PGL including a 3.7-mile portion where the train operates completely grade separated in the median of the I-210 freeway, like the MTA’s Green Line, a light rail line designed 100% grade separated (crosses no street). Indeed, after the PGL departs Union Station it travels over 2.5-miles on grade separated tracks (elevated and fenced off street-level tracks) before it reaches its first at-grade crossing at Avenue 33. In other long portions, like the 1.5 miles between Ave 36 & Ave 50, there is only one crossing.
3. The Expo Line at-grade stations are expected to serve large numbers of riders like the Blue Line at-grade stations, not like the low-ridership Pasadena Gold Line at-grade stations.
At 43,400 riders, the Expo Line stations are expected to serve a far greater number of riders per station than the PGL, even a greater number of riders per station than even the Blue Line. With the expectation of nearly three times as many riders per Expo Line station, the conditions around the PGL stations are completely different:
Expo: 43,400 riders / 10 stations = average of 4,340 riders per station
Blue: 75,000 riders / 22 stations = average of 3,409 riders per station
PGL: 20,000 riders / 13 stations = average of 1,538 riders per station
The additional pedestrians not only present more potential victims, they create more challenges, elements, obstacles and distractions when trying to safely drive, walk, and cycle around the stations to all pedestrians, motorists, and train operators. Coupled with the already tightly-wound and overburdened traffic system, unexpected pedestrian movements, such as slower crossing speed due to age and/or disability, or walking against the no-walk sign make the Expo Line crossings more complex and more likely to lead to accidents.
The high ridership of the Blue Line was cited in the MTA’s 1998 Booz-Allen Hamilton study as the primary contributor to the Blue Line’s astronomical grade crossing accident rate:
“4. The [MTA Blue Line] has one of the highest ridership counts for light rail lines in the Country. This factor is perhaps the most important contributor to the grade crossing accident rate. The high ridership results in increased pedestrian traffic near stations as compared to other light rail systems. In addition, although MTA Operations does not allow high passenger loads dictate safe operations, there is pressure to maintain travel times and headway schedule requirements (e.g., passenger trip from Los Angeles to Long Beach in less than one hour).”
High ridership can be expected to be a factor in Expo Line accidents and fatalities as well.
4. The anticipated pedestrian activity around Expo Line crossings is expected to be high like the Blue Line crossings, not like the overwhelming majority of Pasadena Gold Line crossings, which have substantially lower pedestrian activity.
Even away from the stations, pedestrian activity is expected to be higher than most PGL crossings. The high pedestrian activity around the Blue Line was cited in the MTA’s 1998 Booz-Allen Hamilton study as one of four factors that explain why the train is the deadliest light rail line in the country:
“1. The [MTA Blue Line (MBL)] travels through a high population density area with a diverse varied social-economic community. The high density results in increased pedestrian and automobile traffic as compared to other transit properties. In addition, the communities through which the MBL travels requires special attention to language and literacy issues when disseminating public outreach and education information.”
Coupled with the high pedestrian activity around the Expo Line are narrow sidewalks insufficient to handle the additional pedestrians that can be expected during surges such as the arrival of school buses and mass transit vehicles (train or bus), school dismissal and large extracurricular activities, and major entertainment events (Galen Center, Exposition Park, West Angelus Church, and Rancho Cienega Park)
Limited sidewalk capacity leads to more risk taking behavior, like walking in the street to walk around crowds, or pedestrian spillover into the streets due to walk cycles that aren’t long enough to accommodate the pedestrian surges.
5. The PGL crosses no high vehicular cross-traffic volume intersection in street-running design, while comparatively the Expo Line crosses several high traffic volume intersections in street-running design, like the Blue Line.
Of the 13.7 miles of track on the Pasadena Gold Line, only the ¾-mile section on Marmion Way in Highland Park from Avenue 51 to Avenue 57 operates in “street-running design” (the train operates without crossing gates directly parallel to vehicular traffic). This amounts to only 5% of the entire track.
In fact, the speed of the trains is limited to 20 mph and traffic in all four directions is stopped when the train crosses an intersection. Yet, despite these low traffic volumes, slow train speeds and four-way red light, 40 – 45% of the MTA’s recorded accidents along the 13.7 mile PGL have occurred in this ¾-mile section, the only portion of the track without grade separation or crossing gates.
Comparatively, roughly 3.4 miles of the 8.6 mile Expo Line alignment (40%) is in street-running design, where the train is proposed to operate without crossing gates, travel at 35 mph with parallel lanes of high volumes traffic on Exposition Blvd and Flower Street, and cross streets with high volumes of traffic (Washington/Flower, Adams/Flower, Jefferson/Flower, Vermont/Exposition, Normandie/Exposition, Western/Exposition, and Crenshaw/Exposition).
This operation is comparable to the sections of the Blue Line on Flower Street and Washington Blvd in the City of Los Angeles (see below), and to a lesser degree to the City of Long Beach section south of the Willow Station.
Blue Line train in the median of busy Washington Blvd:
Indeed the Expo Line will operate on the same tracks as the Blue Line on the Flower Street side alignment tracks from 7th Street Metro station to Washington Blvd, where the 0.6-mile at-grade portion from 12th Street to Washington Blvd has resulted in 154 accidents in 18 years of operation, an average of 9 accidents per year over just 0.6-mile. This is the most accident-prone section of light rail in the country.
According to MTA’s March 2008 Summary of Blue Line accidents, 56% of all the recorded 647 train-vehicular accidents with the Blue Line and 47% of the total 813 accidents with the Blue Line, have occurred on Flower Street and Washington Blvd street-running segment despite the fact that it accounts for only 11% of the total tracks (2.5 miles out of the Blue Lines 22 miles of track). When adding the street-running segment in Long Beach, which has some differences, but more similarities with the Washington Blvd and Flower Street street-running segments, 92% of all vehicular accidents and 76% of the total accidents on the Blue Line occur in the street-running segments, despite the fact that it accounts for only 25% of the total tracks (5.6 miles out of 22 miles of track).
Additionally, because the Blue Line crosses several high capacity north-south streets in its Washington Blvd street-running section, north-south traffic is more dispersed, as opposed to funneled into one major arterial street. Comparatively, on the Expo Line the closure of several nearby crossings within a short radius of the major intersections, particularly around Western/Exposition, Normandie/Exposition and Vermont/Exposition, and the elimination of left-turns and U-turns at other streets, will divert more of the area’s traffic to already congested and problematic intersections resulting in more driver delay, and thereby driver frustration, which leads to more risk-taking behavior.
Driver frustration due to traffic around the Blue Line was cited in the MTA’s 1998 Booz-Allen Hamilton study as one of four factors that explain why the train is the deadliest light rail line in the country:
“2. The [Metro Blue Line (MBL)] traverses through an industrial center of Los Angeles. The industrial center results in increased trucking and shipping traffic near the MBL. The increased truck traffic results in increased driver frustration due to slower street traffic speeds. This frustration may result in increased crossing gate running and illegal left turns.”
Driver frustration from increased traffic can be expected to be a factor in Expo Line accidents and fatalities as well.
6. The PGL operates almost entirely on an isolated right-of-way, while almost the entire Expo Line alignment is directly parallel to vehicular traffic like the Blue Line, including several sections in street medians and side alignment.
The PGL operates almost entirely on an isolated right-of-way with crossing geometry that is very different than the Expo Line crossings.
As explained above in #5, the PGL has no comparable street-running section or side street-running section like the Expo Line. Comparatively, there are sections of the Blue Line with similar crossing geometry and mitigation measures as proposed on the Expo Line.
The close proximity of contra-flow and parallel vehicular traffic movements relative to the entire Expo Line right-of-way provides very limited room for recognition, response and recovery for miscalculations, or alterations to unexpected movements of road-sharing motorists, pedestrians and cyclists, or even train operators. The limited margin for error can be expected to be a factor in Expo Line accidents and fatalities.
The behavioral, social and environmental characteristics along the Expo Line corridor individually and collectively make the Pasadena Gold Line an inappropriate comparison, and the Blue Line a more fitting comparison. The PGL can only be considered comparable and thereby a good barometer for judging Expo Line crossing safety hazards if one ignores: train speeds, track alignment, crossing geometry, volume of vehicular traffic, volume of pedestrian traffic, roadway infrastructure, sidewalk capacity, and the environment in which the train operates – basically almost all of the elements that every rail safety expert and rail accident investigator considers when evaluating grade crossing hazards or attempts to identify the leading contributors to train accidents and deaths.
In the MTA’s own 1998 Booz-Allen Hamilton study, which asked, “What makes the Blue Line the deadliest light rail line in the country?” the MTA identified factors that are behavioral, social and environmental around the system and crossings as the cause. And yet, in their PGL comparison, the MTA/Expo Authority has provided no information about any of these important elements around the PGL, because they are not analogous to the Expo Line. This is the major flaw – the Achilles’ heal, of the Expo Authority/MTA’s assertion that the Expo Line won’t be as deadly and accident-prone as the Blue Line and will have a safety record more like the Pasadena Gold Line.
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