Thursday, February 24, 2005

Luas accidents

Do you remember when I wondered whether Dubliners would view the Luas negatively if it was involved in a lot of accidents or if it created all sorts of traffic jams? At the time I was figuring that Houstonians' negative views of their light rail system might be duplicated here.

Well, there do seem to be an awful lot of incidents with the Luas, but I don't think there's a large groundswell of negative opinion - yet. We might still get there.

Yesterday's Irish Independent reports that in the Luas's first 6 months there have been 22 accidents, most of them along the red line, which has only been open for three months. What the Indo fails to mention is that the green line runs along the road for a very short distance compared with the red line. Therefore, the first three months' numbers are not really valid and it's better to focus on the current rate of nearly 6+ incidents per month.

Tom Manning of the Rail Procurement Agency said "many of the incidents resulted from risk-taking drivers 'crashing lights'". I'm not sure what "crashing lights" means, but if this is a significant cause of accidents involving cars (or trucks) with the Luas, then surely it's also a problem for other cars and pedestrians. I presume Mr. Manning doesn't mean to imply that these cars are only "crashing lights" when the Luas is near-by.

The Luas was a bad idea from the word go and too many people are afraid to acknowledge that. It doesn't carry enough people to help relieve the traffic nightmare and it doesn't suit the more, shall we say, carefree attitude of so many drivers here. It's pretty and it's better to ride than a bus, but it was not a real solution to our public transport shortage and represents very bad value for money.

As a tip to the Luas's administrators, you might want to call Houston and ask them what they did. It seems that after making some changes, Houston experienced a reduction in incidents involving their light rail trains.

I was interested in this page (obviously I can't vouch for the stats here, but he sounds like he knows what he's talking about) that talks about the dangers of rail, particularly light rail.
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.
Now, I had never heard that rail was this dangerous, but I'm not willing to dismiss this too readily. The Luas always should have been put underground. If these safety statistics are accurate that only adds to the case against Luas. I'd like to know if the safety statistics for rail in Europe are similar to those this guy has posted about the US.