Despite safety improvements, the Metro Blue Line held the title as California's deadliest rail transit system in 1999, tallying 10 deaths and 40 injuries along the 22-mile line connecting Long Beach with downtown Los Angeles.
The 1999 Blue Line statistics were worse than those for 1998, when the line had nine fatalities and 30 injuries in 47 accidents, according to a report published this month by the state Public Utilities Commission. Most of the 50 accidents along the Blue Line last year involved collisions with motor vehicles at street crossings.
The number of motor vehicle accidents per rail mile of the Blue Line was more than twice the rate for the next highest system, the Santa Clara Valley rail line, the report said.
Motor vehicle accident rates dropped last year for light rail systems in San Francisco, San Diego, Sacramento and Santa Clara. But the Blue Line's rate jumped 20% in 1999 over 1998, the report said.
Officials of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the Blue Line, said the increase probably was caused by the growing number of motorists making illegal left turns into the path of the train along Washington Boulevard, south of downtown Los Angeles. The rail line runs down the middle of the street along a two-mile stretch there.
"Why they are doing that, who knows?" said MTA spokesman Ed Scannell. The agency is launching a billboard campaign to warn motorists about the dangers of illegal left turns.
MTA officials said the number of accidents is not a surprise, considering that the rail line has 101 street crossings through some of the most densely populated communities in the state.
"You have thousands and thousands of people crossing every day," Scannell said.
He said six of last year's 10 Blue Line deaths were caused by a single accident. An unlicensed taxi driver in November was struck trying to outrun a southbound train in Compton. The driver and five passengers were killed.
Since then, Scannell said, there have been no fatalities on the Blue Line.
Safety Measures Introduced
The MTA has launched several new safety measures along the Blue Line route to reduce the accident rate. They include:
* A public outreach campaign.
* The assignment of eight county sheriff's deputies to watch for motorists and pedestrians trying to pass lowered crossing gates. Fines were increased last year to $271.
* The installation of 10 cameras at 17 locations to photograph motorists who try to get around lowered gates. Authorities can use photographs of the license plates to issue citations. This year, the MTA plans to add six more cameras.
* State approval for new crossing gates that are more difficult for motorists to bypass. The gates--which use four arms instead of two--were tested at 124th Street in Willowbrook. The MTA plans to install the gates on 10 other rail crossings over the next five years.
Construction also is expected to begin in November on a pedestrian bridge over the Blue Line at the intersection of 55th Street and Long Beach Avenue in South Los Angeles. That is where 13-year-old Gilberto Reynaga was struck and killed last summer as he and a friend darted across the tracks.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who heads the MTA Board of Directors and represents most of the communities bisected by the Blue Line, said she is concerned by the high accident rates but hopes the MTA's safety efforts will reduce the number of deaths and injuries.
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Rail Transit Accidents in 1999
Transit Agency Accidents* Killed Injured** MTA Blue Line 50 10 40 Sacramento Regional Transit District 13 4 48 San Diego Trolley Inc. 25 3 14 Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority 22 2 4 BART--Bay Area Rapid Transit District 15 2 7 MTA Red Line 3 1 2 San Francisco Municipal Railway 107 1 74 MTA Green Line 1 0 1 San Francisco Cable Car 29 0 29
* Includes 11 suicides and attemped suicides
** Any person taken to a medical facility for treatment is considered to have been injured.Source: California Public Utilities Commission