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Coming to Terms With Rail

May 22, 2002

In a little more than a year, comfortable commuters aboard the new Gold Line train from Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles will be able to wave at the long line of drivers that daily snakes along the Pasadena and Foothill freeways.

Some residents were unhappy with the state Public Utilities Commission's decision last week to approve the Gold Line without substantial design changes. But the commissioners reasoned their way to the right decision, one that could be a template for other lines in the region's emerging light rail network.

The 14-mile line's critics, concerned about the noise and safety risk posed by 250 trains carrying 38,000 riders a day through dense neighborhoods, had for years pushed officials to require the trains to run in long trenches through Pasadena.

That requirement would have added as much as $100 million to the Gold Line's cost and pushed the July 2003 start date back by as much as a decade.

Instead, the PUC, which oversees rail safety, voted 3 to 2 on Thursday to proceed with the current railway design, which includes the disputed street-level crossings, although the agency did impose noise and speed reductions along some portions of the route.

Commissioner Geoffrey Brown of San Francisco, a city that has long had light rail and cable cars on congested streets, concluded that "compared to other lines that I know, this will be a safe operation." He has hit on a big part of the problem here. Los Angeles has so little experience with commuter trains that many of us are more afraid of the trains than of the speeding motorists, drunk drivers and hit-and-run criminals who have become bread-and-butter fare for the 11 o'clock news. Those fears threaten progress on other routes, including the Exposition Line planned between Santa Monica and downtown L.A

Of course, trains can pose a danger to motorists and pedestrians, and planners need to do all they can within reason to increase safety. But the responsibility for many accidents rests with drivers who recklessly try to beat trains to crossings and pedestrians who walk on or across tracks.

Design improvements at street crossings and an aggressive campaign to boost public awareness of train safety have cut accidents 79% in the last three years along the Blue Line, between Long Beach and Los Angeles. Local and state transportation planners have learned hard lessons from this experience, lessons they are applying to the Gold Line.

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