Expo crash spurs concern about Santa Monica rail crossings danger

FILE: An Expo Line test train runs through downtown Santa Monica. The train is expected to open to the public in May 2016.
FILE: An Expo Line test train runs through downtown Santa Monica. The train is expected to open to the public in May 2016.
Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority

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A crash on the Expo light rail line Wednesday has renewed concerns over the safety of street-level crossings, particularly as officials prepare to open a new section of light rail to Santa Monica next month.

While the accident at Exposition Boulevard and Western Avenue did not cause any serious injuries, it was a reminder of the inherent dangers of car traffic convening with train tracks, as will be the case for much of the new Expo Line Phase II.

The new rail section will open to the public on May 20, connecting the current terminal in Culver City with Santa Monica, where congested streets fill daily with tourists, pedestrians and cyclists.

The train will run at the same level as car traffic in many areas, with 16 at-grade or street-level crossings where car traffic crosses the train track. Intersections like these have a higher potential for collisions than above-grade crossings, experts warn.

"We have a serious issue with the design of our intersections when it comes to at-grade crossing accidents," said Najmedin Meshkati, a University of Southern California professor of engineering who specializes in rail safety.

Meshkati cites a study from the Federal Transit Administration that shows the majority of light rail crashes in the U.S. are caused by cars turning onto the tracks.

In instances where it's too difficult or costly to separate the tracks from car traffic with a bridge or tunnel, Meshkati said engineers should make intersections "foolproof" — that means extremely clear signals and signs as well as physical barriers that reach across all lanes of traffic so cars cannot drive around them.

Meshkati notes that even when signals seem clear, drivers can easily become confused at night or in unfamiliar areas. Some drivers also willfully disobey traffic laws, and systems should protect them and others against their actions, he said.

Of the 16 at-grade crossings on the new Expo Line, nine have gates installed. Seven of the gate-free intersections are in busy downtown Santa Monica, where the train will run directly alongside car traffic on Colorado Avenue.

In December, a truck making an illegal left turn along this stretch of Colorado Avenue inadvertently crossed in front of a test train and derailed it.

This concerns Greg Mantell, an area resident who has written to the city of Santa Monica requesting it install gates there. He points to busy Lincoln Boulevard, which the Expo train will cross, where he regularly sees cars stuck in the middle of intersections during rush hour, or running red lights and making illegal turns.

"When you're planning for safety you can't assume people will do the right thing. You have to look at what people actually do," he said.

Officials with the Expo Line construction authority said the lack of gates is standard design for street-running trains like the one on Colorado due to limited space. The trains also move at slower speeds and are controlled by traffic signals as are the cars.

Metro has been running a safety campaign at schools and in neighborhoods to educate the community about how to keep safe around the train.

Earlier this year, officials decided to install a fence along the tracks after thousands of pedestrians were observed crossing them.