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TRAX safety improving after 2-year campaign

Published February 2, 2014 7:51 pm

Mixed results • But bus, FrontRunner accident numbers not so good.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

After a two-year campaign to improve safety, the Utah Transit Authority is starting to see significant improvement along its TRAX line ­— but mixed results with buses and other trains. Utahns aren't exactly helping as six of every seven bus and train accidents are not UTA's fault.

One example: An impatient man wearing headphones crawled under a stopped freight train last year, saw a northbound TRAX train coming and ran across the tracks to beat it, running into the side of a southbound train.

"[He] didn't even look the other way," says Dave Goeres, UTA chief safety officer.

Another: A driver ran the gate at a TRAX crossing while he was texting on the phone and hit a train, Goeres says. "We had 254 gates broken last year. At about $1,000 each [to repair], it cost us about a quarter-million dollars." That comes to about five crashed gates a week.

And yet another: A man wearing headphones exited one train and while looking down, crossed around that train and walked into another pulling into the station. "He had to walk across yellow tactile squares" and past signs warning to look both ways while the other train was sounding warning bells, Goeres says.

Only 14 percent of UTA bus and train accidents last year were the fault of UTA and its operators. The other 86 percent generally resulted from what Goeres calls "distracted pedestrians and inattentive drivers."

Those numbers come from a Salt Lake Tribune analysis of UTA accident and safety data obtained through an open-records request.

It helps show how well UTA is doing with a drive to improve safety that began when it hired Goeres in 2011 after a highly publicized rash of fatal accidents — mostly on TRAX — and disclosure that five-year accident rates were twice as high as other, similarly sized transit agencies.

Results • The Tribune analysis shows the rate of serious accidents, injuries and fatalities on and around TRAX is showing significant improvement — although accident rates for UTA's overall system is actually worse than when it started its safety campaign. Findings include:

• For the overall system, major incidents dropped last year — but still were higher than when the campaign began. The rate dropped from 1.99 accidents per million miles in 2012 to 1.66 in 2013, which was higher than the 1.53 rate in 2011. The rate of serious injuries and fatalities was lower in 2013 (1.81 per million miles) than in 2012 when it was 1.96. UTA recorded five deaths and 44 serious injuries in 45 accidents last year.

• TRAX has shown significant improvement. Its rate for incidents was 3.19 in 2011 — and dropped to 2.37 last year (after bumping up to 3.64 in 2012). The rate for injuries and fatalities fell from 3.44 per million miles in 2011 to 2.98 in 2012 to 2.37 in 2013. That was a two-year decrease of 31 percent.

• Buses saw initial worsening with safety, then some improvement. The rate for incidents rose from 1.11 per million miles in 2011 to 1.48 in 2012, then dropped back to 1.26. For injuries and fatalities, the rate rose from 1.59 to 2.25 the next year, then dropped to 1.47.

• FrontRunner commuter rail saw initial big safety improvements, then lost many of those gains last year. Its rate of incidents went from 4.64 per million miles in 2011 to 2.45 in 2012, only to rise to 3.91 last year. FrontRunner's rate for injuries and fatalities was identical to its incident rate.

Reasons • Goeres acknowleges that much of UTA's safety campaign over the past two years has been targeted to TRAX — and may be why that part of the system has shown the most improvement.

The emphasis on rail, he says, is because UTA has opened four new lines over the past two years — airport and Draper TRAX extensions, the Sugar House streetcar and the FrontRunner Provo extension — and the agency saw the need to help residents become accustomed to trains in new places.

As each line opened, UTA ran radio, TV and billboard ads and sent out mailers to promote safety.

He says the campaign did not target buses as much because "we have an operator in every bus, so the operator is our safety ambassador. He's telling people, 'Next time don't stand in front of the bus, stand on the sidewalk.' "

Such education is part of a four-part approach to increasing safety that Goeres calls "engineering, education, enforcement and encouragement."

Engineering • Many of the engineering changes grew out of a tragedy in June 2011 when 15-year-old Shariah Casper was killed by a TRAX test train on the new Mid-Jordan line in West Jordan. She had waited for one train to pass, and was killed by a second train moving in the other direction — which was difficult to see because of sound walls.

After the accident, UTA removed or rebuilt sound walls that obstructed pedestrians' view. It put warning alarms and gates where pedestrians can better see and hear them. The agency added numerous warning signs and gates to encourage stopping and looking. UTA also no longer allows pedestrians in new stations to walk directly across tracks, but makes them zigzag through fences. It plans to do the same at older stations.

Other steps were taken, such as increasing the volume on train warning bells. The agency even started putting warning signs on sidewalk surfaces so people with their heads down will see them, said Goeres. "We have to change with society. As [people] are being more distracted, we have to try to get their attention."

Enforcement • Goeres worries about "hoodies, hand-helds and headphones. People are in their own world now. They have headphones in, they are looking down at their phone, they've got their hoodie up so they don't see around them" — so much of the safety campaign is aimed at getting people to be aware of what's going on around them.

That led the UTA board to adopt a controversial ordinance early in the safety campaign to outlaw and ticket "distracted walking" around trains and buses.

UTA issued only 17 such citations last year, according to agency records. But Goeres says the law allowed officers to warn many others..

Slow learners • Data show that many people aren't paying attention to safety messages — nor oncoming trains and buses.

Bus and train operators were responsible for just 14 percent of UTA accidents last year. Others — motorists, passengers, cyclists and pedestrians — caused 86 percent of them. People other than UTA operators also were to blame for 76 percent of UTA accidents in 2011 and 88 percent in 2012.

Among the reasons reported to the federal government for UTA accidents last year: "motor vehicle hit bike, which was pushed under train"; "bike ran into bus"; "pedestrian walked in front of bus"; and "pedestrian walked into train."

Last year 28 of the 45 UTA accidents were caused by motorists who violated traffic laws and crashed into a train or bus. Those accidents ranged from motorists turning left into trains to running red lights and crashing into buses to rear-ending buses stopped for passengers.

"You have to be aware when you're around the system, if you're riding it, if you are crossing it," Goeres says. "Just like the train can't stop, the bus often can't stop."

Most of the fatalities last year were from suicides.

UTA fault • In some of the accidents, of course, UTA is at fault.

Last year, for example, a TRAX train ran into a train car that had become uncoupled without anyone noticing. Several buses rear-ended other vehicles. One bus hit a pedestrian in an intersection. In other years, buses hit trees or walls.

UTA has worked hard to improve its culture of safety, Goeres says. That includes opening any UTA meeting with a "safety minute"; sending a weekly safety message; having a different safety poster monthly; and giving pins and freebies with safety messages for employees to pass out to passengers and others.

"We are pleased in the direction we are going, and everyone's focus on safety," Goeres says. But he adds that every accident has the potential to hurt or kill someone, not to mention delaying and upsetting passengers — and that UTA still has far to go.

Every accident prompts a discussion between Goeres and UTA General Manager Michael Allegra.

"He always asks me, 'What else can we do?' " Goeres says. "And we keep looking for that, and will keep working on it."






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