Despite D.C.'s Fatal Crash, Light Rail Is Safe Transit

Light rail is a safe way to travel. (Photo: Ben Schumin [CC BY SA-2.0]/Flickr)

I have ridden subways and light-rail systems all over the world, from London to Moscow — and even wrote a book, Breaking Gridlock, that is largely about what’s so good about them (and why we need more of them).

And that’s why Monday night’s crash of a Washington Metro Red Line train near the Maryland border, killing nine, was such a downer. It will, inevitably, lead anti-train activists (and, believe me, there are a lot of them out there) to proclaim that this “proves” trains are unsafe. But we lose an average of 40,000 people annually in the carnage on the highways, and most people still get behind the wheel.

Commuter train crashes are very rare. There are some bad apples. Houston's MetroRail has been called the "Wham Bam Train." Last year, one of the worst such accidents in U.S. history occurred when a Southern California rail locomotive apparently ran a signal and crashed into a freight train, killing 25.

Operator error was at fault in California, and is also apparently a factor in Washington. On the Metro line, a supposedly “fail-safe” computerized signal system is in place to prevent collisions, and experts are saying today that its dysfunction may be a root cause of the disaster. A 2000 Federal Railway Signal dispatch had warned that similar signals could fail. Another factor is the driver’s inexplicable decision not to hit the brakes before impact. Incapacitation is one possible explanation for that.

I interviewed one prominent California-based anti-train activist, Randall O’Toole, for my book. He claims that “between 1992 and 2001, Los Angeles’ commuter-rail trains have killed five times as many people per passenger mile carried as either buses or urban interstate freeways, while light rail has killed nearly nine times as many people per passenger mile as buses or urban interstates.”

O’Toole doesn’t bother to quantify this, because the numbers would be embarrassing for his cause. A huge plurality of our trips are by car in the U.S., so his numbers only sound damning if you throw that “per passenger mile” in there.