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Where Rapid Transit Means Constant Risk

Blue Line: MTA struggles to cut death toll in densely populated area of L.A.

November 15, 1999|DOUGLAS P. SHUIT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's Michael Walden's first week as the operator of a Los Angeles Metro Blue Line train. He's a former bus driver, but the differences between bus and rail are like night and day.

Accidents are commonplace, and deaths to motorists and pedestrians along the Blue Line are the highest among California's light-rail systems.

Trains can reach speeds of up to 55 mph while buses are stalled in traffic. After the trains reach top speed, it takes them more than the length of a football field to stop. And, in the 54-minute, 22-mile run from downtown Los Angeles to Long Beach, Walden will cross 101 streets, breezing past senior citizen centers, shopping malls, low-income housing projects, parks, swap meets and industrial strips.

Virtually all of the deaths are the result of miscalculations or carelessness by pedestrians or motorists, transit police investigators say. Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials are providing system operators with training on how to be aware of such hazards, but point out that these dangers inherent in an urban system at ground level are often beyond their control.

Critics call the setup a formula for disaster, and the line's track record bears them out.

47 Deaths in 10 Years

Since the Blue Line began operating in 1990, 47 pedestrians or motorists have lost their lives after being hit by the light-rail train, the result of more than 400 accidents, according to state and local records kept for light-rail systems.

On this day, Robert Johnson, who supervises the training of train operators, is hovering over Walden's shoulder.

Peering down the track with Walden, it is easy to see the problem: Cars and trucks on both sides of the train head for the same intersection. Kids straddle bicycles, waiting impatiently for the train to pass. People push shopping carts toward the tracks. Commuters stand dangerously close to the tracks as they wait for Walden to stop.

"You see that car coming alongside? What do you think he is doing?" Johnson asks, reciting his training mantra. "Is he accelerating? What do you think he might be doing, trying to turn left?" The car stops. "If the vehicle starts to move an inch, you are on the horn, you are on the brake."

Johnson, a hard-nosed, veteran train operator who looks out at the world from under an MTA baseball cap, pounds into his students' heads what is obvious the first time they step into a Blue Line cab: The trains have no steering wheel.

Fixed as they are to rails, trains can't turn away from an accident. That creates a helpless feeling for operators because if they see someone or something on the tracks ahead of them, all they can do is brake and wait for the impact, Johnson says.

Listen, in the spare language of a police report, to the Blue Line's William McClendon, who in June was operating a train that struck and killed Troy Well Young, a pedestrian, at 103rd Street and Grandee Avenue in Watts.

"I was traveling 35 to 40 mph when I observed the man walking east along the south sidewalk area," the 55-year-old train operator said. McClendon said he had been sounding his horn, but Young didn't turn away. "I began emergency braking. He kept walking. He was looking south. There was nothing else I could do. I turned my head and heard the impact."

Johnson hopes Walden will finish his career without an accident, but he is less than optimistic. Among other lessons, Walden will learn the phrase "pray for the dead," a grim mnemonic reminder of the cadence that trainmen use for their warning sequence: two long horn blasts, followed by a short one, then another long one.

"It isn't a matter of if you have an accident, it is when," he says matter-of-factly.

So many accidents happen that the Blue Line has claimed more lives over the last five years than the state's other four light-rail systems combined, according to Public Utilities Commission records. These statistics do not include heavy rail, such as MetroLink or Amtrak trains.

Nationally, the casualties are so high that Los Angeles accounts for a disproportionate share of America's light-rail accidents, according to the Federal Transit Administration.

Officials seeking to improve the Blue Line's safety record acknowledge that some problems are not fixable, such as the Blue Line's location in Los Angeles County's densely populated urban and industrial core. They say that taking the trains off the streets and creating a grade separation would dramatically help, but assert that there is no money available to elevate the tracks or put them below street level.

Working to Eliminate Casualties

Locked into what now is a mature, 10-year-old system that defies a massive overhaul, the MTA struggles to bring down Blue Line casualties with rigorous training of operators like Walden, aggressive law enforcement, and constant tinkering with fences, horn sounds, signal lights, traffic gates and other safety hardware.

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