Seattle's most dangerous light rail stretch -- and how to make it safer

Seattle's most dangerous light rail stretch -- and how to make it safer

Sound Transit Chief Safety Officer David H. Wright, hired in 2020, says he's researching strategies and costs to recommend to the board this fall.
June 19, 2022

By Mike Lindblom, Seattle Times

Baseball fans Emoke Rock and Steven Wayne were heading to another Mariners game on a warm summer evening when a light-rail train pulled into Columbia City Station, heading north toward the ballpark.

To reach the northbound platform, they needed to cross two pairs of tracks in the median of a five-lane street — first the southbound tracks, then the north. As they made their way, a southbound train rolled in from their left. The train operator perceived they were pausing, but the couple took another step. The train couldn't stop in time.

At the final moment, Wayne was looking toward the station boarding area, while Rock, in her blue baseball jersey, glanced toward her feet and the rails, train-cab video showed.

"Neither of them looked at the approaching train," said the investigation by King County Metro, which operates light rail for Sound Transit. Rock, a 76-year-old former real estate broker and schoolteacher, died at the scene, while the 66-year-old Wayne, also a real estate broker, was declared dead at Harborview Medical Center. The train operator went to Harborview for mental trauma.

The two fatalities make July 2, 2021, the worst day in the history of Sound Transit light rail. The crash added urgency to a project by safety managers to reduce hazards in Rainier Valley, the line's most dangerous stretch.

Columbia City Station is within a 4-mile segment where tracks were built on the surface of Martin Luther King Jr. Way South. There, trains mix with cars, trucks, bikes and pedestrians, unlike most of the 24-mile line where tracks are elevated or tunneled.

Since service began in mid-2009, trains have hit a vehicle, person or object 136 times in the tracks of MLK Way and four at MLK Way stations. There was a total of 168 such incidents along the entire line from Angle Lake to Northgate, according to a Seattle Times review of crash reports.

Eight people have been killed and about 54 injured on MLK Way, records show. Two more people were killed and 11 injured on surface tracks in Sodo or downtown tunnel stations. Another 188 close calls were reported on MLK Way, transit consultants found, in a January draft report, released through Seattle Times public records requests.

The latest severe crash happened May 19, when a pedestrian was struck by a northbound train entering Othello Station. The woman was critically hurt.

According to Sound Transit's preliminary notice to state and federal agencies, she was using a phone as she walked along the South Othello Street crosswalk. Instead of turning toward the station platform, she stepped into the trackway, the report said.

Throughout the MLK segment, only a few feet separate station entrances and pedestrian-control fences from the tracks, leaving transit operators unsure where people will step, until it's too late.

Dangers predicted

The design and signals in the early 2000s were considered state-of-the-art, and still exceed federal safety requirements for urban transit. "These warning and control devices likely [have] contributed to a relatively good collision record," the agency reported five years ago. Nearly all incidents resulted from driver or pedestrian mistakes.

Nonetheless, safety professionals nowadays echo the viewpoint neighborhood residents shouted a generation ago: Surface tracks pose a built-in threat.

"Based on the severity and probability, the risk of collision between pedestrians and LRVs [light-rail vehicles] along the MLK corridor presents an 'undesirable' hazard," says a 2019 analysis by Metro safety administrators, prompted by a spike in crashes. That followed an earlier label of "unacceptable hazard" in 2017.

Beyond the human toll, collisions interrupt service between downtown and SeaTac, making light rail less reliable.

Surface collisions have received little to no political attention, but staffers at Sound Transit, Seattle Department of Transportation, and Metro formed a work group to consider gates, pedestrian spaces, train speeds and other possible safety upgrades.

Sound Transit Chief Safety Officer David H. Wright, hired in 2020, says he's researching strategies and costs to recommend to the board this fall. Seattle City Councilmember Tammy Morales of South Seattle has called for a safety analysis by city staff by Sept. 1.

Sound Transit Chair Kent Keel said he looks forward to learning more.

"We need to come up with some improvements there because what we have seen, in terms of some incidents, shows it's not adequate," said Keel, a council member from University Place, Pierce County.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chair Jennifer Homendy called the search for solutions in Seattle and other regions "long overdue, and a welcome shift." Homendy compared rail and road to the aviation industry, which since the 1980s evolved from blaming pilots to a searing look at technical, ergonomic and environmental factors.

"I think, in most of these situations, what would be better is if they redesigned the crossing to separate pedestrians and cyclists and passengers from having to cross the tracks," Homendy said. "Go under the track. Or, move the track."

More people, more risk

Rainier Valley's surface tracks are a legacy from the late 20th century, when the Federal Transit Administration and mid-sized cities like Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis and Denver embraced light-rail technology because it's versatile. Trains draw electricity from an overhead power wire, enabling tracks to be built overhead like a monorail, at the surface like a streetcar, or underground like a subway. That makes construction cheaper than a New York-style train powered by an electric third rail.

Recent safety reports cite increased population and travel in Rainier Valley to explain a late-2010s rise in collisions. "System designed at grade with frequent public crossings and did not account for rapid growth of the MLK Corridor," said a Metro root-cause analysis after the July 2 deaths.

But a thriving neighborhood and more people on foot were significant reasons to build light rail.

Sound Transit's environmental-impact statement in 1999 predicted three pedestrian strikes and 29 vehicle collisions per year, based on frequency of crashes in other light-rail systems. A safety director and consultants who worked on that statement later said MLK would be safer than their figures suggested, because of modern design features. Sound Transit forecast only one death per 131 years caused by operator error, a finding that satisfied federal standards.

The pro-tunnel group Save Our Valley filed an unsuccessful federal lawsuit accusing Sound Transit of civil-rights violations because it chose surface tracks in the ethnically diverse, lower-income Rainier Valley, while offering underground trains to the whiter and wealthier North End.

FTA voiced the opposite rationale, arguing rail access and economic growth would benefit minority populations, to award Sound Transit a high social-equity rating and a $500 million grant.

During the 2010s, light-rail ridership grew from 18,000 to about 40,000 daily riders between downtown and SeaTac, as pedestrians and apartments arrived post-recession.

"Listen, this light rail was sold to the South End based on the investment and growth that was going to come. So now for Sound Transit to say we didn't expect this growth and these safety issues that are arising because of the growth, is bunk," Morales said. The neighborhood's South Seattle Emerald has repeatedly highlighted the line's shortcomings.

The transit agencies' call for change is better explained by a policy shift, where exasperated safety professionals take a harder line.

They're surfing two cultural waves. "Vision Zero" is a worldwide pledge co-signed by Seattle and Washington state to eliminate traffic casualties by 2030. The other is the Safe Systems Approach, to make travel foolproof by methodically removing hazards.

"We realize we're dealing with human beings, who will make mistakes," said Jim Curtin, SDOT project development director. "We need to design our systems so that when a mistake is made, the result isn't severe injuries or death."

Seattle attorney James S. Rogers filed formal claims against Sound Transit on May 20 on behalf of the Rock and Wayne families for unspecified dollar amounts, as the precursor to a lawsuit.

"This was predictable, this was foreseeable. This cost two lives and we don't want to see that anymore," Rogers said.

How crashes happen

To make surface crossings safer, it's useful to know how crashes happen.

The most common types involved drivers in left-turn lanes of MLK Way who ran red-light arrows, crash reports show.

Others made left or U-turns from through lanes, into the tracks, which caused the only motorist death.

"It's exceedingly dangerous," said Scott Parr, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida who has researched grade crossings. "You don't look back on the left, because you're worried about the oncoming car hitting you on the passenger side."

From the outset, Sound Transit installed signs above road lanes that flash a train icon when trains approach.

Nonetheless, some people missed them and collided with trains.

"The signs are not big enough for me," a 78-year-old driver told police. A trucker said he was following GPS prompts before an impact that spilled cases of Mountain Dew into the street. A British Columbia man, visiting for dragon boat races, was unfamiliar with MLK Way traffic lights. An Oregon man in Seattle for medical care tried a U-turn while experiencing a reaction to low blood sugar. Seven people drove or ran from vehicles after hitting trains. Police arrested another for drunken driving.

"Most of the events that happen are not high severity," said Molly Hughes, state rail-safety coordinator. "It's almost like you're getting lucky. If enough of these fender-bender accidents happen, eventually one of those is going to be really, really bad."

Most of the 168 crashes were ruled "non-preventable," meaning an alert operator could not have avoided impact, or that a safety officer said trains were operated correctly. About 10% were ruled preventable, or the train operator's actions were deemed a contributing factor, or someone was sent to retraining.

Of the 10 fatalities along the entire line, nine were pedestrians, including two determined to be suicides.

A misstep can put somebody within the airspace of an approaching train.

A woman suffered minor head and leg injuries when she leaned over a steel pedestrian-refuge fence between trackways at Columbia City Station. A man crossing at South Holly Street was whacked in the face by a train "beyond the yellow line" next to a fence; the police report said he and a companion smelled of marijuana. A 38-year-old man was hospitalized in late 2020 after stepping past the pedestrian corral into a train he didn't notice at South Thistle Street.

Some had hoodies that blocked peripheral vision, or wore earphones. Two teenage girls were hit by a train they didn't see while running to a bus near South Graham Street. An Olympia man going to a Mariners game was killed in 2013 by a southbound train at Rainier Beach Station while he rushed to meet a northbound train.

Metro field observers found 30% to 60% of all pedestrians walk against red signals, though most look for cars and trains. Long waits, such as 70 seconds between pedestrian signals at Columbia City Station, create temptations to walk on red.

Safety solutions

In recent months, new signs were installed at Columbia City, Othello and Rainier Beach stations near pedestrian level. They stay dark until trains arrive, then flash a railcar icon toward walkways and boarding platforms. They're augmented by the phrase "ANOTHER TRAIN COMING" during dual passes.

Seattle DOT also improved electronic warning signs for drivers in 27 locations, so the traditional train icon now alternates with a no-left-turn symbol, said Dusty Rasmussen, Seattle's interim traffic operations director.

The process moves slowly. SDOT hoped to complete flashing pedestrian signs by December 2018, which slid to September 2020. Officials blamed a three-month fabrication time, and "resource ability this year to install signs due to COVID," agency logs say. Most are now in place, and the project should be complete in late 2022, Rasmussen said.

X-shaped icons with the letters R/R, known as a crossbuck, have been stenciled onto left-turn lanes.

Jittery train operators in Sodo took it upon themselves years ago to decelerate and blow horns after accidents and close calls at South Holgate Street, near a drug-treatment center and encampments. Sound Transit built gates for pedestrians to swing open, as a reminder of train presence. Still, from March to November 2020, Metro recorded eight "unsafe events" of trespassers, one of whom appeared to be resting on the ground when a train struck and injured him.

After the deaths last summer at Columbia City Station, Metro Transit Safety Administrator Jonathan Flomerfelt suggested horn blasts become routine at Rainier Valley crossings, but noted there are anti-noise agreements with the city.

His team is also looking to lower speeds through MLK Way to 25 mph, said a Sound Transit report after the fatal July 2 crash.

Trains require 7 to 8.5 seconds including operators reaction time, and roll 180 to 257 feet, to brake from Sound Transit's standard 35 mph cruising speed to zero.

In Metro's opinion, dropping to a 25 mph standard will be essential to improve the line's official "undesirable" safety rating (probable vehicle collisions, and/or occasional serious pedestrian injuries) to "acceptable with management review," a report said.

Passengers would lose 2 1/2 minutes per trip, studies say. That could make transit a less-appealing alternative to driving for airport travelers and South King County commuters.

Morales wonders if greater frequency could offset time losses, if trains arrive every 7 1/2 minutes rather than 10 minutes apart.

That might require more railcars at $4 million each. Signal re-timings would snarl motorists. "This is likely a multi-year process," the safety-team log acknowledges.

For now, safety administrators have enacted an experimental 20 mph operating rule since September, just before trains approach three Rainier Valley stations.

More options appear in a Sound Transit safety team planning study, written in January 2022 by consulting firm David Evans and Associates, that leans heavily on Los Angeles Metro pilot projects:

* Short gates, as used in parking garages, could deter driving through left-turn lanes on red.

* SDOT could install red-light enforcement cameras at Sound Transit crossings, like the new Crenshaw Line to LAX.

* Red pavement lights parallel to the rails, flashing when trains pass, have reduced illegal turns in field tests, researchers at Cal State-Fullerton found.

* Handheld swing gates, like those in Sodo, are also suggested for Rainier Valley. Seattle DOT already decided to install more Z-shaped steel fences, which force pedestrians to look toward trains, Rasmussen said.

* A few awkward intersections, notably MLK at South Dawson Street, could add a left-turn lane northbound, so confused drivers don't turn from a northbound thru lane.

The new report mentions, but doesn't propose, some curbs and barriers at secondary street crossings to block drivers from turning toward rails in the medians. Cars would enter MLK Way from side streets via right-turns only.

Some cities, such as Austin, are considering state-of-the-art "quadrant gates" that block car intrusions from all angles for commuter trains. But four gates plus signals cost at least $1 million per crossing.

Sound Transit eschewed gates on MLK Way while designing the line in the '00s, to save on cost and land. Federal regulations allow gateless crossings for trains 35 mph or slower. (Sound Transit does operate three sets of conventional train gates in Sodo where tracks aren't splitting a city street.)

The FTA is studying high-tech devices nationally, such as radar and lasers to detect obstacles farther than a train operator can see; visual and alarm warnings that shoo people off the tracks; or automated braking alerts that calculate real-time crash probability. Brain and eye-monitoring devices could check operator alertness.

Rebuild the railway?

A foolproof solution — move the valley's tracks overhead or underground — hasn't been debated. Grade separation would enable quicker travel, or automation like Vancouver, B.C.'s SkyTrain.

Transit-board member Claudia Balducci of Bellevue, who chairs the system expansion committee, called the Rainier Valley segment "an outlier" that produces too many collisions, making grade separation a fair long-term question. "I think we need to find a way to start talking about it," she said.

Elevated guideways cost roughly $250 million per mile, plus the challenge to install tracks among live trains. A shallow tunnel alongside might be simpler but require severe traffic closures.

"That's in the billions of dollars, and a lot of concrete. That's a number with a B in it," said Keel. "That kind of number would require voters to vote on it."

Seattle Subway, a volunteer advocacy group, considers such a do-over unrealistic. Members prefer an express line from downtown to Georgetown and SeaTac, while Rainier Valley tracks endure as a slower local loop, Executive Director Efrain Hudnell said.

NTSB's Homendy said service and safety on Amtrak's high-speed Northeast Corridor have benefitted from retrofits that separate roads from trains. She'd endorse that strategy for Seattle, even at $1 billion or $2 billion, to prevent future suffering.

"When you're talking about somebody's life, that's priceless," she said.

Even a couple billion dollars is a fraction of Sound Transit's latest financial plan, which totals $142 billion from 2017 to 2046, to build and operate 12 rail and bus lines serving 750,000 people a day. Sound Transit is expecting a $2.8 billion long-term boost in federal aid based on Biden administration infrastructure packages.

Keel says residents across Snohomish, King and Pierce counties would take a dim view of another construction try in Rainier Valley, while their own communities don't have trains yet.

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(c) 2022 The Seattle Times

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