Commuter transit line problems, LIRR delays, LA metrolink crash
Bebeto Matthews/AP

Commuter Train Collisions Spark Lawsuits, Angst

November 26, 2008 01:59 PM
by Anne Szustek
Recent suburban commuter train accidents involving cars and pedestrians have drawn renewed attention to safety standards across the country.

Commuter Transit Lines Work to Prevent Accidents

Houston’s light rail train, MetroRail, has seen an increase in accidents this year—52 compared to 34 in 2007. Authorities for the light rail system put the blame on the city’s move to synchronized traffic lights downtown, which means that drivers and trains share green lights.

Metro spokeswoman Raequel Roberts told the Houston Chronicle that “Half of this year's accidents are the result of motorists who were traveling beside the trains attempting illegal turns, and the majority of them were at intersections with synchronized signals,” the paper stated.

In a bid to reduce the number of car-train collisions, the city of Houston is installing new traffic fixtures at 14 locations. In addition to the standard-issue red and yellow lamps, the lights will also include an up arrow that flashes green, and an arrow flashing amber to indicate when drivers are to make right turns.

Related Topic: Transit accidents around the country

Human error and technical malfunction were the cause behind two accidents on the Long Island Rail Road within a week. The LIRR is facing $1 million in repairs after three rear cars derailed on Sunday in what is being called the LIRR’s worst accident in 15 years. One turned and blocked three different tracks. The other two cars had to be torched to separate them. The incident caused delays on Monday and Tuesday and built upon rider dissatisfaction.

On Wednesday, a train bound for Port Jefferson, N.Y. swiped a train headed toward the Long Island town of Babylon when they were passing each other in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens. Five minor injuries were reported, but the subsequent delays reverberated throughout the system. Long Island newspaper Newsday reported that human error was at fault, namely that the driver of the Port Jefferson train may have ran a stop sign. According to Newsday, the train operator has “been removed from service without pay.”

In Baltimore, commuters can expect crowded trains over the coming week as Maryland Transit Administration maintenance crews work to repair damaged tracks. Wheels on a train slid after leaves obstructed the rails on Nov. 17.

“Winter weather conditions will still be a challenge, but at this point we are better equipped to keep the trains running,” Paul J. Wiedefeld, the administrator of the MTA, was quoted as saying by Baltimore Business Journal.

An accident occurred on a Los Angeles Blue Line train on Sept. 19 when a city Metro bus ran a red light. As many as 15 train passengers sustained injuries in the collision. The bus was unoccupied.

But mistakes at the hands of train conductors, particularly those willing to share their love of trains with teenage train enthusiasts, were behind two train incidents grabbing national headlines recently.

A crash on Los Angeles’ Metrolink occurred on Sept. 12, when a Metrolink commuter train crashed head-on into a Union Pacific freight train after the driver failed to heed a stop signal. Days after the crash, investigators released information about the engineer possibly sending texts while driving the train. Kitty Higgins of the National Transportation Safety Board said that investigators had been in touch with two teenagers who told a local television station that they had been texting with the driver shortly before the crash. One of the teens said he was a train enthusiast who had been talking shop with the engineer.

A teenage railroad admirer was also connected with the Nov. 12 suspensions of two operators of Chicago commuter train Metra. One of the train engineers, who according to the Chicago Tribune was a 26-year veteran, was suspended without pay for six months and placed on a two-year probation for allowing the adolescent in the locomotive cab, in direct violation of Metra Rules. The other operator received a two-month suspension without pay and a one-year probation period.

Another Metra train operator, Brian Voss, also recently resigned. Voss was terminated following a crash in 2004 that took the life of a 10-year-old boy. Federal officials summoned his reinstatement after it was determined Voss was unable to “introduce evidence during his investigative hearing and because of media coverage,” reports the Chicago Tribune.

The same day as the two Metra operator suspensions, the Chicago commuter train company was ordered to pay $11 million in connection with a 2005 derailment that killed college student Jane Cuthbert and Allison Walsh, a research technician. The accident occurred when the operator tried to switch tracks as the train, en route from Joliet, Ill. to Chicago, was traveling at more than 70 mph. The driver of that train was fired in 2006.

Reference: Public transportation options


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