Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Will Sound Transit's Link system be safe?

With the ongoing debate of monorail versus light rail in Seattle, I think it's a good idea to discuss the safety of the Link Light Rail system Sound Transit is building. Monorail advocates often point out that monorail is by nature separated from pedestrian and street crossings (also called grade-separated), but I have also heard incorrect assertions that light rail is by nature at street level (or at-grade).

Light rail can be elevated, at-grade or underground - and Link uses all three. Downtown, it will use the existing transit tunnel - currently closed to have work done on the rails and overhead lines to support Link. On the way south to Beacon Hill, it crosses a few streets in south downtown Seattle and rises to elevated track. Beacon Hill is tunneled, after which Link is elevated for a station stop. Link then drops to street level through the Rainier Valley, before rising to elevated track again all the way to the airport.

In south downtown, the streets the light rail crosses already have other rail tracks crossing them. There has been track along the alignment the light rail is using since the 1880s - in fact, the rail is being laid in the same place that the first tracks into Seattle were! Drivers in the area are already used to train crossings, and there are few accidents. The crossings will also be signaled and gated to prevent drivers and pedestrians from crossing the tracks when there is a train passing.

In the Rainier Valley, Martin Luther King Jr. Way will have light rail directly on the surface. Area residents called for a tunnel through the region rather than a surface or elevated system because they feared that construction on the surface would run local shops out of business, but funding was not available to continue tunneling. It's widely believed that because the Rainier Valley is one of Seattle's poorest neighborhoods, their demands were considered secondary to those of wealthier residents in Capitol Hill and Montlake - areas which will be tunneled through.

With many at-grade pedestrian and vehicle crossings, this section will be prone to accidents - but not as many as people fear. TriMet's MAX light rail system in Portland has been involved in the deaths of only 18 people since it began operation in 1986 - an average of about one per year. This is impressively low, considering the MAX system is at-grade straight through high-traffic downtown Portland as well as Gresham, and as of 2004 the Yellow Line covers an equivalent distance and density to the MLK alignment. The MAX system served 91 million passenger trips between July 2003 and June 2004. With only one fatality during that time, that's almost as safe as flying. The equivalent car traffic would cause significantly more fatalities.

As an idealist, I would like to see rail systems always grade-separated (elevated or tunneled). Unfortunately, that's not always possible, either due to public preference in service areas or due to funding constraints. Considering the success of the at-grade sections of Portland's MAX system, I don't anticipate serious problems with the MLK section of the Link system - in fact, because many local drivers are already used to Tacoma Link, Amtrak Cascades and Sounder service, new crossings may not pose as much of a problem as they did in Portland when MAX service began.


At 12:59 AM, Anonymous EvergreenRailfan said...

The SODO Segment parallels a Busway built on the alignment that Union Pacific used to get to Union Station. It is safe. Also, it looks like that area will be protected by Grade Crossing gates. Portland has been relatively safe with MAX, even though the Steel Bridge, where the line crosses the Willamette has MAX and autos using the same lanes!

Houston may be the poster child for LRT/auto accidents, almost an accident a week last year, on average.

At 8:14 AM, Blogger Ben Schiendelman said...

Oh, I certainly agree that it's safe. I asked the question because a lot of people don't think it's safe - it's something I hear a lot, even at the public meetings.

I'll be taking that MAX line this weekend (I've never taken the airport extension) and I'll be keeping an eye out for how close cars get.

Denver's LRT system has also been very safe - Houston is certainly in the minority.

At 1:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


1) Any stats from the bay area's rail system? I've been travelling to San Jose for the last 2 yrs on business, and folks there tell me to never trust that the "trolley coming" lights will work. People there seem to think that the trolleys are not necessarily dangerous, but not what could be called a non-hazard either.

2) You really ought to put a deisclaimer noting that you are pretty anti monorail at the beginning of your rail pieces. It'll give you more credibility.

At 1:30 PM, Blogger Ben Schiendelman said...

I haven't seen statistics on accidents for either BART or the trolleys. The trolleys have been in service for longer than cars have - I suspect that area residents are quite used to them. I also haven't yet found statistics on accidents with Tacoma Link - I'm not sure there have been any. The trolley coming lights in SF are also very old - Light Rail crossing systems installed now have to meet very strict federal DOT standards.

You make a good point about my feelings on the monorail. I'm planning to write a post or posts specifically about that, but it's such a large issue that I don't think it fits in one post. Do you think a post or series of posts about the monorail would be effective enough?

At 11:40 PM, Anonymous EvergreenRailfan said...

I like the RED line, especially where it branches off the Blue Line. That happens at Gateway Transit Center, where the I-205 South line will also branch off as well. Interesting how the first line used one block of right of way on I-205 that was banked when the highway was first built, then the first branch line of the completed East-West spine, branched off on that very spot. The Yellow line heads North at Rose Quarter bound for the Expo Center. All three lines use the same Willamette River Crossing.

At 8:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: Monorail. Series of posts, including a timeline, would be useful to help get people up to speed. Deal with issues like what the plan(s) said vs what was actually bid, validity of forecasts, ties to light rail (which you already briefly touched on, I think). Probably the biggest yet hardest to evaluate issue is the overwhelming public support for the project. Being and engineer I was really torn, as I believed the light rail had been extensively vetted, whereas the monorail was just running on momentum. OTOH, public support can get you a long way. On the gripping hand, someone's got to pay the bill.

At 8:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting that you claim that monorail is so terrible.. It is less expensive, than a 4 lane street in the air for trains, and it doesnt contact cars or crossings making it much safer, and quicker oh and a lot cheaper.. but then using apples and oranges to show how bad monorail is sounds about normal for this region.. tied to busses and trains, many not even full... I love subsidizing over $300 per seat for the sounders...

At 9:08 AM, Blogger Ben Schiendelman said...


I have yet to see a monorail project built that's cheaper than an equivalent light rail project. Remember that construction costs on the monorail project are so low partly because they're single lane for both the Duwamish and Ship Canal bridges. What is this four lane street in the air for trains you talk about? Light rail is typically two lane.

You seem to be making the same assumptions about monorail v light rail that everyone has - monorail is elevated, light rail is not. It's not true - look at SkyTrain, and even sections of Link that are already built!

I've heard everywhere from $150 a seat to $1000 a seat for Sounder from all sorts of people against it - none from actual financial data, and all including capital costs. How much did you fund per seat for the I-90 reconstruction?

At 10:42 AM, Anonymous Larry the Urbanite said...

Like I said, a series of posts. Try to be as objective a reporter as you can, but get into the details. In other words, make your case. Show us the stats and site your references. Then open it up to dicussion and answer the questions that come up in the comment section in follow up posts.

Don't be afraid of a little mind-numbing detail and repitition of the points you are trying to illustrate. Anyone reading your site is a transit wonk anyway, LOL!

At 1:54 PM, Blogger Frank Bruno said...

"It's widely believed that because the Rainier Valley is one of Seattle's poorest neighborhoods, their demands were considered secondary to those of wealthier residents in Capitol Hill and Montlake - areas which will be tunneled through."

This isn't actually true, though, is it? Isn't a simpler explanation the fact that it's easier to build at-grade in the valley, and in a tunnel if you're going through a hill?

Certainly it's true that, in many cities, rich people live on hills and poor people live in valleys. But that's not Sound Transit's fault, is it? Rich people have gotten to live on the high ground since at least the middle ages, right?

In any case, I don't think it's physically possible for a train to pop out of the downtown bus tunnel and climb up Pike Street at grade.

At 2:05 PM, Blogger Ben Schiendelman said...

Frank: It's debatable. Certainly there was no elevated option for Capitol Hill, but Montlake, the UW and northward could have been served by a combined elevated and at-grade system emerging from a Capitol Hill tunnel.

It is certainly easier to build at-grade in the valley - but the first section of MLK is not a valley, it's up a hill. There was ample space to transfer to a cut-and-cover tunnel as area residents would have preferred - although there would likely have been much more negative neighborhood impact during construction than there is now. The difference is that businesses would have to have been moved or recompensed for damages incurred by construction of a tunnel, and the current utility work can be argued as an "inconvenience" only.

Personally, I think there was a little of both. Sound Transit made a political decision based on the relative financial inability of the Rainier Valley residents to mount a negative campaign, but also recognized that given the funding available, it made more sense to build the system at grade. Now that we know ST has enough money to continue on to Capitol Hill and Husky Stadium, I do think that a tunnel should have been reconsidered and I fault the agency for not making that public - but I recognize that any further delay now would seriously destroy ST's already tarnished reputation, and could lose us the system entirely.

I hope that as traffic increases through the Valley, an elevated or tunneled solution is considered as an eventual replacement.


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