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Commentary | VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES

Commuter Rail Is the Way to Go

It's safer, cheaper and less stressful than travel by car.

February 01, 2003|David R. Solow | David R. Solow is chief executive of Metrolink.

In 2000, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,753 people died in traffic accidents in California -- the leading cause of death for those ages 1 to 34. That same year, Metrolink had two fatalities.

Commuter train accidents nationwide accounted for less than 0.01% of transportation fatalities in 2000, the most recent year of available data.

Commuter rail passengers are 15 times safer from accidental death than when they travel in an auto. This is not to suggest that any train fatality is somehow acceptable. For those of us who labor on a daily basis to bring safe and reliable commuter rail to our communities, the safety of our passengers, our employees and the public is our top priority. That is why we engage in so many safety presentations -- 177 in 2002 alone.

We support a safety outreach program to schools and other community organizations. This program includes 700 billboards, farm worker education and safety drills of all kinds. We publish a safety column in our on-board newsletter every month to remind our passengers of safe train behavior.

At every opportunity we strive to get the message out: Trains move very fast, in both directions, and one must never walk or play on or near train tracks. All train tracks should be approached with care. It can be a deadly mistake to race the train, ignore the warning lights, drive or walk around the safety barriers or stop on the tracks.

Unfortunately, education and warnings can only do so much. Train crossings have multiple warning signs, including train whistles, flashing lights and safety gates. Still, the individual's responsibility to make safe choices must be included in the safety equation.

Separating each grade crossing might resolve the car-train interaction, but the cost would be quite high.

Metrolink is not a multinational corporation. It is a public agency, funded by the people's money. We at Metrolink take very seriously the nature of the capital investment that has been entrusted to our care.

When the public voted overwhelmingly to fund commuter rail, it made a wise move toward more transit options for the Southland. It was a good economic decision.

Commuter rail costs about $3 million a mile to build, with a passenger capacity of about 5,000 an hour. And rail capacity is bidirectional. Two highway lanes would be needed to compete with one railroad track. Freeway lanes are not cheap. They cost from $3.5 million to $25 million a mile to construct and serve about 2,300 passengers an hour.

There are many benefits to commuter rail. Rail can grow with ridership demand. It is reliable, which was amply demonstrated after the 1994 Northridge earthquake when Metrolink continued to run while some freeway overpasses were in ruins.

Trains are a comfortable, all-weather mode of transportation, ideal for longer commutes. The stress and hassle of traffic are components of our daily journey that make urban life increasingly difficult. Metrolink is but one part of an integrated transit system that can be part of the solution. Having fewer cars on the freeways simply makes our communities better, less stressful and less polluted places to live.

If you ever sit on a freeway during rush hour, then you know that this system of commuting does not work -- but Metrolink does.

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