Why does the Blue Line have so many accidents?

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A Blue Line Stop

A Blue Line stop
Photo: Raymond Shobe on Flickr

Yesterday’s rail collision near downtown LA was familiar news. Since Metro’s Blue Line began running in 1990, its trains have crashed into vehicles and pedestrians almost 1,000 times, leading to 123 fatalities.

In this most recent collision, a minivan driver ran a red light near the corner of Washington Blvd and Maple Ave. No one was killed, but at least twelve were injured.

According to Najmedin Meshkati, an engineering professor at USC and an expert in transportation safety, the Blue Line is the most dangerous rail line in the country when you compare fatalities to miles of track.

KCRW was unable to confirm this statistic, but data from the American Public Transportation Association and USA Today indicate it was at least true through 2002.

Either way, why so many accidents?

Meshkati said there haven’t been adequate studies of this question. Currently, local law enforcement agencies investigate collisions, but Meshkati would like to see a more thorough review from the perspective of a transportation analyst.

In the meantime, Meshkati points to the Blue Line’s at-grade crossings, where rail track intersects directly with streets. He said the crossings should have better lights and signage to alert motorists and pedestrians of oncoming trains.

Metro spokesperson Paul Gonzales said these safety elements already exist and are sufficient.

“The entire Blue Line is a safe line and it’s up to federal specifications in every detail,” he said.

“The problem we have is when people ignore the red lights or they ignore the crossing arms or they ignore the audible alarms. When this happens, then they enter the right-of-way, and they’re in danger of being struck.”

He also noted that some of the fatalities have been suicides.

In 2013, Metro partnered with the Didi Hirsch Suicide Prevention Center to place signs in rail stations about the organization’s 24-hour hot line.

In a blog post last year, Metro’s Steve Hymon wrote that Metro has also met with community members and installed Safety Ambassadors at past accident locations to encourage safe behavior near train tracks, among other measures.

Gonzales said that no additional safety features are planned for the crossings’ infrastructure, though Metro will be undertaking a 1.2 billion dollar project in the next six years to refurbish the Blue Line’s tracks, electrical systems, and rail cars.

He also said that police and sheriff’s reviews of collisions satisfy applicable law.

Meshkati acknowledged that some Blue Line fatalities are suicides, and that motorist and pedestrian slip-ups cause many others.

But he argued that this last point is exactly why the safety warnings at rail crossings need an upgrade.

“People that live in Los Angeles are not used to seeing at-grade Metro lines,” he said.

“Running the red light is an error, but is it basically something we cannot prevent? I believe that we can.”