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Light Rail Year One: Pains, Trains and Automobiles

By John LaBarbera

A permanent rail system had been a pie-in-the-sky dream for the Phoenix area since the Phoenix Street Railway was destroyed in 1948. Sixty years later, that vision came to reality, when METRO Light Rail officially started threading down valley streets. For many, the 20-mile track is a convenient way to get here to there, foregoing cars (especially gas) and even buses. For some, however, the Light Rail can be an indomitable moving object with numerous safety concerns, namely its accident rate.

After just one year, Light Rail has racked up 51 crashes… averaging one crash per week and 2.5 crashes per mile and has cost METRO about a half million dollars in damage to the trains.

Police accident reports show that METRO was not deemed at fault for any one of the accidents. This doesn’t stop some, though, for placing responsibility on the rail system.

This tug-of-war blame game is also prevalent in the city of Houston, whose 7.5-mile Metro Rail system opened in 2004. There, the crash rate peaked at 71 during its first year in operation. That amounts to almost 10 crashes per-mile, resulting in the critical nickname of “The Streetcar Named Disaster.”

Several accident victims have criticized the failures of both rail systems’ trains to stop quickly enough while approaching a potential accident.

Over the past six years, Houston’s accident rate has halved, mostly due to drivers getting used to a train in the middle of the street. If this is any prediction, Phoenix motorists, too, will soon grow more comfortable with Light Rail. But for now, it seems like a head-to-head battle between the drivers of Phoenix and the four thousand ton silent behemoth barreling down the streets.