January 30, 2004
The recent Los Angeles commuter train disaster that killed eleven people has brought national attention to the safety problems inherent in most rail transit lines. Yet the Los Angeles tragedy is only one of many recent rail accidents. Others include:
All of these accidents point out the key flaw in rail transit: It is simply not safe to put vehicles weighing hundreds of thousands of pounds in the same streets as pedestrians that weigh 100 to 200 pounds and vehicles that typically weigh a few thousand pounds. Heavy rail (subways and elevateds) avoid this flaw by being completely separated from autos and pedestrians, but are still vulnerable to suicides. Light rail, which often operates in the same streets as autos, and commuter trains, which frequently cross streets, simply are not safe.
Aside from being lighter than railcars (and thus less likely to do harm when they hit you), buses have the advantage that they can stop quicker. Rubber on pavement has more friction than steel wheel on steel rail, and the typical bus has many more square inches of wheel on pavement than a railcar. No matter how good the brakes on the railcar, it is physically impossible for it to stop as fast as a bus, for if the brakes are too good the wheels will just slide.
This is why light rail kills, on average, about three times as many people for every billion passenger miles it carries as buses. Commuter rail kills about twice as many people as buses. Only heavy rail is safer than buses, and then only if you don't count suicides.
As noted on page 372 of The Vanishing Automobile, autos on city streets are a somewhat less dangerous than commuter rail, while autos on urban freeways a little less dangerous than buses. Safe transportation thus means more freeways and buses, not more rail transit.
The recent Los Angeles crash was the result of a suicide attempt gone wrong. But this should not absolve the transit system. Why should we be happy to give depressed people another way to commit suicide? When heating gas was reformulated in Britain a few decades ago to make it less deadly, gas-related suicides declined by the thousands, but other forms of suicide did not increase to compensate. This indicates that proper design can reduce suicides and improper design can increase suicides by making them too easy.
Of course, the fact that the Los Angeles accident was caused by a suicide attempt doesn't mean that Los Angeles trains are otherwise safe. In recent years Los Angeles' commuter-rail trains have averaged nearly five times as many deaths per billion passenger miles as buses, giving them one of the worst safety records in the industry.
The worst record, by the way, is held by Los Angeles light-rail lines, which kill nine times as many people per passenger mile as buses. Great Rail Disasters provides safety data from almost every rail transit system in the country.
People who advocate light rail and commuter rail should ask themselves: Do they really want to be responsible for the extra deaths, not to mention property damage, that their expensive transit systems will cause? Ironically, the people who favor rail transit are often the same people who insist that life is sacred and priceless. On safety grounds alone, light-rail and commuter-rail lines should simply not be built.