Metro Transit plans to inspect its signaling equipment and review safety procedures in the wake of a series of recent crashes on local light-rail lines that have killed two people and injured three others.
The agency, which provides bus and train transportation throughout much of the Twin Cities area, also is set to enact new initiatives in an effort to keep people from being hit by trains, Metro Transit officials said.
Over the next month, the agency plans to post new warning signs and posters at platforms and inside rail cars emphasizing the proper way for motorists and pedestrians to interact with trains. In the spring, it will continue work on a painting project started last year designed to steer pedestrians and bicyclists from areas deemed unsafe. It also plans to launch a pilot project that will make more lights on signs blink when trains pass by.
“The safety of our passengers and well-being of our operators is a top concern,” Adam Duininck, chairman of the Metropolitan Council, which operates Metro Transit, said last week. “I will make sure that we are taking every feasible action we can to make our services as safe as possible and to educate the public about how to stay safe around trains.
“I have also asked our staff to review any additional communications and outreach efforts we can undertake to amplify the message that safety is a shared responsibility.”
To date, there have been 107 crashes involving pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles on the Blue Line, which has been running along Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis since 2004. There have been 60 on the Green Line, which runs between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul and largely along University Avenue, since service began in June 2014.
Light-rail operator Dan Syverson believes there could have been more.
This week, as he piloted a 150-ton Green Line train down bustling University Avenue at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour, Syverson saw cars run red lights and cross the tracks illegally.
Near the Westgate Station, as bells rang, lights flashed and the train horn sounded, a pedestrian walked in a left-turn lane perilously close to the tracks. At other times, Syverson said, he has seen pedestrians wearing headphones not look up at oncoming trains as they crossed the tracks.
“My biggest concern is that I will hit a pedestrian,” said Syverson, a light-rail operator and trainer for more than a decade. “It’s a lot of defensive driving — looking ahead at what is out there and dealing with what might come at you. Some runs are marvelous and others you wonder how you made it to the end of the line.”
Crashes are ‘devastating’
Despite the run of crashes this month, the number of fatalities involving Metro Transit light-rail trains and pedestrians and bicyclists in recent years is not out of line with figures reported by 17 other transit agencies nationwide, according to the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database.
In 2014, 18 pedestrians and bicyclists across the country were killed in light-rail and streetcar crashes. Metro Transit, which was third in the nation (tied with two other transit authorities) in reported fatalities, recorded two deaths last year.
This year, 11 fatalities have been reported nationwide, although that number may be low as transit agencies have up to one month to report fatalities to the Federal Transit Administration.
Before starting the job, light-rail operators undergo 12 weeks of training that covers driving safety, customer service and security. They take additional training annually. But with scores of intersections and rail platforms and hundreds of places along the Blue and Green lines where people cross on foot but are not supposed to, operators must be vigilant and be prepared to react quickly, Syverson said.
As he guided a Green Line train on Tuesday, Syverson constantly scanned the horizon looking for potential trouble, always ready to apply the train’s three braking system at a moment’s notice.
Any crash, he said, is “devastating for an operator.”
Not paying attention
The five recent collisions in the Twin Cities involving light-rail trains is unusual, said Mark Lawson, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005, which represents 125 rail operators. They “usually happen in a more spread-out way,” he said.
Nevertheless, Lawson said it may be difficult to totally avoid “short of building tunnels everywhere.”
Part of the problem is that people are “walking where they’re not supposed to be or not paying attention,” he said. “There are a lot of near-misses, not just on the train, but with buses, too.”
Howie Padilla, a Metro Transit spokesman, said the scope of the entire safety review has not been determined. But transit officials will look at whether safety equipment — bells, flashing lights, crossing arms — was working before, during and after each of the five crashes. Metro Transit also may consult with other transit agencies to ensure that it has the best safety practices in place.
A University of Minnesota professor and several graduate students recently studied pedestrian behavior along the Green Line for a class project and offered several suggestions to mitigate or eliminate dangerous situations.
They chose to study the Green Line because its design — which differs from the Blue Line — is believed to have been a contributing factor in the higher rate of incidents — about one every 22 days. That compares with one incident every 156 days along the Blue Line, according to Metro Transit data collected in 2014.
The students’ report recommended posting larger and more-detailed signs to direct pedestrians, who tend “to follow the shortest visible path rather than a lengthier path that is safer.” The effort could include installing signs to better alert passengers to train schedules, especially those who are transferring from a bus or another train.
“People will engage in risky behavior and risk life and limb to catch a train, even when the train runs every 10 minutes,” the report stated.
• Posting signs in multiple languages, or using easily identifiable graphics, to better inform passengers of possible dangers.
• Installing swing gates to force pedestrians to pause and scan the horizon before crossing the tracks.
• Making sure that traffic lights at nearby intersections are set to give pedestrians more time to cross the street and reach rail platforms.
Make eye contact
Even before the recent run of crashes, Metro Transit had been looking at making safety improvements on the Green Line, said Brian Funk, the agency’s director of rail operations.
The Federal Highway Administration gave the agency approval to modify static signs that warn motorists of a passing train. Those signs are affixed to traffic signals and light up when a train passes.
Metro Transit now plans to tweak the signs so that they also blink. The goal is to grab motorists’ attention in hopes of reducing car-train crashes caused by drivers illegally turning across the tracks. Several signs between Vandalia and Eustis streets will be tested as part of a pilot project this spring. If successful, the blinking lights could be used along the entire Green Line, Funk said.
“People don’t look at us,” Syverson said, adding that pedestrians and motorists also share responsibility for their safety. “We love eye contact or a hand wave. It tells me that you see me coming. That takes the stress off the operator.”