The Metro Blue Line claims its 103rd death, how can we prevent more?

A Blue Line Train arrives at 103rd St/Kenneth Hahn Station, not far from where 57 year old Solanda Rodriguez was struck and killed by the Blue Line.
A Blue Line Train arrives at 103rd St/Kenneth Hahn Station, not far from where 57 year old Solanda Rodriguez was struck and killed by the Blue Line.
Raghu Manavalan

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The Metro Blue Line runs from Downtown LA to Downtown Long Beach. It's one of the most popular light rail trains in the nation. But it's also one of the deadliest, having killed its 103rd person this past Tuesday. Off-Ramp's Kevin Ferguson asks why the line has such a dangerous record and what can be done to save more lives.

Call it a tragic and ugly coincidence in numerology: The woman killed Tuesday was the 103rd Blue Line fatality. The accident happened at 103rd Street. And the Blue Line has 103 crossings where the train is at street level, not buried in a subway, or elevated above the road. They're called at-grade crossings.

"At-grade is an accident waiting to happen," Najmedin Meshkati, who teaches civil and environmental engineering at USC, said on this week's Off-Ramp. "It's a 19th century practice. We should not go with at grade, particularly with transit lines that are going to operate for the next 70 years."

Meshkati said Metro has done a terrific job enforcing and educating the community, but he's applied to the Blue Line the same philosophy he uses in studying nuclear reactors, jet airliners, and oil rigs: humans are human.

"I think it was George Bernard Shaw who said, 'the most uncommon thing among people is common sense,'" he said. "Something that may appear to you and me common sense may not appear to the other people as common sense. And that's why we need to have a scientific analysis on that. If I can design a better handle for a knife that you don't cut yourself, why shouldn't I do that?"

For the past eight years, Metro officials have engaged in an aggressive safety campaign focusing on three "E"s: engineering, education and enforcement. Vijay Khawani, Metro's corporate safety director, said they've installed barriers, gates and "look both ways" signs.

Metro has also cranked up enforcement. A crackdown at the Willow Station in Long Beach a few weeks ago resulted in 106 tickets to drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians alike. The campaign has been very successful in reducing traffic accidents, but not pedestrian deaths. Of the 103 people who died after being hit by the Blue Line, 23 were suicides. That leaves 80 accidental deaths.

Just north of the Blue Line's downtown LA terminus is another light railway, one with a very different safety record.

The Gold Line travels just under 19 miles from East LA to Pasadena. Like the Blue Line, many parts of the train run at-grade. But the Gold Line doesn't interact with pedestrians and cars nearly as often — much of the track runs through protected right of ways.

Often, pedestrians must open a gate to cross the tracks, underlining that they're in the way of the train. Since opening in 2003, the Gold Line has recorded just three deaths. Two of those were suicides, the third a bizarre murder.

Metro has started engineering Gold Line-style safety features into the Blue Line, but it would be hugely expensive to either bury or elevate the Blue Line. Safety director Khawani said there's only so much Metro can do.

"We've got the bells, we've got the flashing lights, we've got the gates, we've got the look both way signs, we've got the education component, we've got everything," he said.

"Certainly there is room for improvement to a certain extent, as far as design is concerned," said Khawani. "And if we had all the money in the world, of course it would be great to build everything like the Red Line, grade-separate everything. But it would certainly delay the delivery of these systems to the community. So I think you're penalizing the mass majority of the public who do behave safely at the expense of a few individuals who choose to not pay attention. So is that fair?"

Back in Watts, where this past Tuesday's fatal accident happened, local Donny Walker rests across the street from the station.

He rides the Blue Line almost every day; he's seen people get hit. He's even had a few close calls himself.

"I really wasn't trying to pay too much attention," said Walker. "I was trying to run a catch the train. Until they put that little crossing arm thing there. Which they should have a lot more of them. Because right here, where the train is, there's a junior high school right across the street."