New push made for safety along Metro's light rail

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - After Metro expanded the reach of its light-rail system, the Transit Authority saw an increase in the number of accidents.

In fiscal year 2015, Metro logged 87 rail accidents. The following fiscal year that number climbed to 108, and between October 1 and February 28, there have been 49 rail accidents. The latest numbers include the deaths of a Rice University professor near Hermann Park and a wrong-way driver along the S. Loop feeder road at Fannin.

Metro officials said investigations determined most of these accidents were “unavoidable.”

One of the factors cited in the rising numbers was that Metro has expanded light-rail service from 7 miles of track to 23. Metro’s website currently lists more than 40 stops along its light-rail network, which means there are plenty of chances for the trains to cross paths with the general public.

“Automobiles, trucks -- you got everything. Trains, buses -- you've got it all,” Metro President and CEO Tom Lambert said.

Lambert said Metro has implemented new safety features while continuing to search for ways to cut down on the number of light-rail accidents.

“How does it affect all road users?” Lambert said was a central question when looking at factors that lead to the accidents.

Metro recently launched an awareness campaign that highlights the need for the public to be more alert when crossing light-rail tracks. To drive this point home, the Transit Authority has released several videos showing pedestrians simply wandering in front of trains and cars making illegal turns in front of rail cars.

“People are crossing unsafely at crosswalks. People are crossly unsafely mid-block,” said Lambert. “We're still seeing left-hand turn violations. We're still seeing red light-running violations.”

In addition to placing more warning signs at crossings, some rail cars have been outfitted with blue-and-red reflective tape to make the vehicles more visible. Eleven cars were wrapped in red for the Super Bowl, and Lambert said Metro is considering doing the same for all the rail cars, fearing the current silver color is too nondescript.

“We think that they blend into the community,” Lambert said.

The city of Houston has also painted several crosswalks red and white to make the areas more visible to pedestrians and bicyclists. Metro is also considering expanding the fencing seen along the rail’s guideway at parks, schools and platforms.

“Do we take the next step? And that's part of what we're going to be looking at, to fence the entire guideway,” Lambert said.

Metro officials said light-rail passengers themselves also present problems at crossings. Metro officials said some passengers will get off one train and check to make sure it is not moving before crossing the tracks, but sometimes forget there is another train coming in the opposite direction. Metro officials report it can take a train traveling 30 mph anywhere from 7.5 to 10 seconds to come to a complete stop. At 20 mph, it can take anywhere from 5 to 6.7 seconds to come to a complete stop.

“Where do you typically see your biggest problems: cars, pedestrians, bicycles?” asked KPRC Channel 2’s Robert Arnold.

“Mostly the intersections, the pedestrians, the crosswalks, people with headphones on,” light-rail operator Christian Tobar said.

“You ever had any close calls or accidents?” Arnold asked.

“Yeah, every day you come to work you have a close call,” Tobar said.

Close calls are something Emilio Flores experienced firsthand. He rides the light-rail frequently.

“When I was on Northline, I wasn't paying attention,” said Flores, who admitted to paying more attention to his phone than the oncoming train.

“I looked up at the last moment, and I was about this far from the train,” Flores said. “(It) just so happened my nephew grabbed me at the time I was crossing and seen the train coming.”

While Metro is working on improving visibility and safety at rail crossings, it is asking the public to do its part, too: Pay attention.

Copyright 2017 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.