METRO FRETS OVER RAIL SAFETY IN HOUSTON
Posted January 3, 2018 4:56 p.m. EST
Despite dotting the fronts of light rail trains with color and aggressive education campaigns to raise awareness, Metro logged its second-worst month for train crashes in November.
Now, transit officials are planning to step up police traffic enforcement to keep car and truck drivers from turning into the train.
Following a pair of high-profile incidents while Houston hosted Super Bowl LI in February, the Metropolitan Transit Authority has spent months focused on rail safety. Despite the efforts, collisions remain a constant along the 23 miles of light rail track, especially where trains share lanes with automotive traffic.
Fifteen crashes occurred along the light rail in November, the second-highest monthly total in more than a year. In that time, the number of incidents involving vehicles and pedestrians topped 10 in only three months, at a time when Metro officials have said safety along the tracks is their highest priority.
"Does it alarm us or concern us? Yes," Metro CEO Tom Lambert said of the November uptick. "Are we going to be distracted by it? No."
More policing is on the horizon, Lambert said, noting most incidents involve vehicles, not pedestrians or bicyclists.
"Sixty percent of our accidents are illegal left turns along the rail corridor," Lambert told Metro board members on Dec. 11. "We have not been aggressive in that - and we're not here to bring in revenue - but we are going to start a very aggressive enforcement campaign."
Some downtown drivers, meanwhile, said they are growing increasingly frustrated at what they said is slow-going blamed solely on the east-west trains of the Green and Purple lines. Rather than police drivers, they said, Metro should turn its efforts internally.
"Why don't they ticket their own drivers for blocking intersections or not blowing the horn?," said Salvadore Martin, 60, who drives downtown daily and parks at a lot on Lamar Street.
Others said Houston should have anticipated safety problems from the start.
"This is why you build a subway," Georgine McDonald said.
Train supporters have said building above or below streets would have doomed Houston's rail efforts, making them costly and impractical.
Nevertheless, the street-level system has faced safety challenges since it opened in 2004, with the number of collisions in Houston outpacing similar light rail systems some years. It's an effort transit officials still are working to solve, or at least reduce.
Metro staff have devised more than a dozen safety-related projects that will roll out in the coming months. The plans range from ground-level work, such as installing additional fencing along the tracks to discourage trespassers and adding signs warning cars and pedestrians about approaching trains, to more complicated and, perhaps, costly deterrents such as new automated gates at Wheeler Avenue and near the University of Houston campus.
A schedule of when the signs and other materials will be installed will be discussed in January, Lambert said.
Officials also are optimistic about research with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute to develop a bluetooth-broadcast system that could allow cars and people with smart phones near the tracks to receive warnings about arriving trains.
Working to erase the "danger train" moniker that opponents have attached to the at-grade train system, Metro officials are quick to note the vast majority of crashes are unavoidable by train operators - meaning there is no action the driver could have taken to keep the collision from occurring - and most were caused by an illegal action by a motorist or pedestrian.
"I think a lot of our biggest problems are not rail issues," said board member Christof Spieler. "They are where rail, pedestrians and cars interact."
Roughly three in 10 crashes along the tracks this year happened at spots where cars and trains share space, though that communal space is one-tenth of the track mileage in Houston. All of the shared area is in the central business district and Texas Medical Center, though left turns are allowed along the Green Line down Harrisburg Boulevard.
Nine of the 15 crashes last month were illegal left turns by motorists, said Sean Cagan, Metro's chief safety officer. That led some to conclude they have a driver problem, not a train problem.
"I bet if we really pressed that, we would find out they were texting or talking on the cellphone," said board member Jim Robinson.
Spieler said one of his concerns is the public safety efforts have focused too much on pedestrians and not enough on drivers. He noted at the Hermann Park rail station near Rice at Sunset Boulevard - where one of the high-profile incidents occurred with a bicyclist that darted in front of a train - Metro placed a flurry of signs urging pedestrians to stop at the tracks.
"Cars coming out of Sunset turning right do not pay attention," Spieler said. "I didn't see a single new sign telling cars to watch out for pedestrians."