UTA getting safer, but still has far to go

Transit • Rail deaths, serious injuries down but they're up for bus, car-train incidents.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

To catch a TRAX train approaching the Temple Square station, a family decided to jaywalk illegally — on the run — across the street and tracks.

As most of the family reached the platform laughing about their daring dash, one child trailing behind slipped on ice and fell on the tracks. She lay there looking at the oncoming train before her mother pulled her up. They stepped onto the platform seconds ahead of the train.

That was just one of 97 reckless, potentially fatal acts a Tribune reporter saw recently in just two hours while watching monitors for eight of the system's 41 TRAX stations. That's one incident every 74 seconds.

While trains hit no people or cars in those two hours, it happens more often than Utah Transit Authority officials like — such as an 83-year-old driver who was injured Wednesday when his car was hit after he allegedly drove around lowered gates at a TRAX crossing in Murray.

And all of that is happening after a massive yearlong drive to improve safety. That drive has led to improved accident rates, but, "We still have a long way to go to get people to take personal responsibility for their own safety," says Dave Goeres, UTA chief safety officer.

Improvement • After a highly publicized rash of fatal accidents — and disclosure that five-year accident rates for UTA were twice as high as similarly sized transit agencies — the UTA appointed Goeres at the end of 2011 to oversee an all-out push to improve safety through a variety of initiatives, from expensive ad campaigns to outlawing "distracted walking" and redesigning train platforms and crossings.

A year later, data show the effort led to some improvement, including:

• Serious injuries on TRAX fell from 2.5 to 2.0 per million vehicle revenue miles, a 20 percent improvement. Fatality rates (including suicides) dropped from 1.2 per million miles to 0.8, a 33 percent reduction. TRAX had five fatalities (three were suicides) and 12 major injuries in 2012.

• However, the rate of "serious incidents" on TRAX reported to the federal government increased slightly from 3.9 per million revenue miles to 4.0. That came mostly from a tripling of incidents involving cars — increasing from 0.7 to 2.5 per million miles. Incidents with pedestrians and bicyclists actually dropped from 2.0 to 0.7 per million miles.

• Major incidents on the FrontRunner commuter rail dropped by nearly half — from 4.6 to 2.6 per million miles. But major incidents on UTA buses increased from 1.1 to 1.6 per million miles.

"We are on the correct trajectory. We are reducing our rate of accidents," Goeres says. "But we still have accidents."

Train-car accidents spike • UTA was especially concerned about the increase of incidents between trains and cars, Goeres says. Most of them came during the first half of 2012, not long after UTA opened two new TRAX lines that increased the frequency of trains along downtown Salt Lake City streets from every 15 minutes to every five.

Goeres said most of the incidents were caused by cars turning left illegally into trains, or running stop lights into trains. He said UTA made changes, including triggering warning lights with train logos to flash (instead of just illuminate) when a train is nearby and putting yellow backing around dark-painted stop lights to make them more noticeable.

The improvements "helped show drivers that not only is there a red light but, by the way, you really need to stop because a train is coming," Goeres says.

UTA also started airing ads about motor safety around trains — in addition to spots that initially focused only on pedestrians because of an earlier rash of train-pedestrian accidents. Goeres said the campaign helped lower the rate of auto-train accidents during the second half of the year.

Tragedy leads to upgrades • Goeres has pages of changes that UTA has made over the past year to improve safety. Many 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.

UTA removed or rebuilt sound walls that obstruct pedestrians' view. It put warning alarms and gates where pedestrians can see and hear them better. 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.

"If you're distracted, you run into a fence" instead of a train, Goeres explains.

As UTA tested its new FrontRunner South and Airport TRAX lines, it added flaggers at intersections during early, non-regular testing of trains — which was not required by federal regulations, but was an extra step to help people become accustomed to new trains.

UTA spent about $400,000 on TV and radio ads pushing safety tips around trains, and also "wrapped" safety messages around many of its buses and trains. Additionally, the agency printed safety messages that UTA employees hand to passengers, students and people in areas where trains are new.

But watching monitors at the TRAX operations center shows many still ignore the extra warning signs and gates — and too often run around them to catch trains. "If you have to run for a train, it's not your train," UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter says, repeating an adage UTA operators know well, as he watches the monitors.

Culture change • UTA has worked to change its own safety culture. All meetings — from its board of directors to small division gatherings — begin with a "safety minute." UTA has safety poster contests each month and it holds sessions where employees share what they have done to help passengers and others be safe.

"Everyone at UTA is a safety ambassador and is supposed to be spreading the safety message in what you say and do when you are on the system. That needs to spread to all of our riders," Goeres says.

One of the more controversial moves by UTA was to outlaw "distracted walking" around its trains — such as listening to headphones and not stopping to look at crossings — punishable by a $50 fine for a first offense and $100 thereafter. It also tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the Legislature to pass a similar law to give it more enforcement teeth.

Goeres says UTA noticed that on social media people complained loudly that "you can't legislate behavior and that it won't work."

But he said UTA staff noticed the day after the agency passed its law "that people were going up to the railroad tracks with their headphones in, stopping, pulling an ear bud out, looking both ways and then crossing the track."

The benefit outweighs the criticism, says Goeres.

"We'll take all the negative publicity if people will start doing the right and safe thing."

Enforcement • Besides improving engineering and education, Goeres says UTA also uses more enforcement to underline its message — and he recently was given direct oversight of the UTA Police in his role as chief safety officer. Some enforcement blitzes show how too many people still are not taking safety to heart.

"We went up to the University of Utah at the South Campus station one day," he says. "We wrote 137 jaywalking/right-of-way violation tickets at the one station in four hours. That's indicative. They see the police there and they still violate."

Another sign that too many people still don't pay attention, he says, is that UTA had to replace about 250 crossing gates last year from people driving into them or pulling so far forward that the gates come down on top of their vehicles. That means one is hit about every one and a half days.

Even with the many steps UTA has taken and the improvement it has seen, "It comes down to personal responsibility," says Goeres. "We can tell you that you have to behave, but you have to do it."