The most common pushback from my first article on LRT safety was, basically, that Europe wouldn’t run trams if street-running rail weren’t safe. I’m not sure why people think Europe is safety-conscous, but I thought I’d do a survey of academic literature on trams/LRT safety research there.
First, let’s take a look at the most tram-friendly study that I came across. Elisa Maitre, currently with CEREMA (French: Center for Studies and Expertise on Risks, Environment, Mobility and Development), had previously published a study that:
…showed that public spaces laid out for modern trams in French city may contribute to some forms of traffic injury accident mainly due to the relative complexity of these public spaces and to severance effects on sections with lanes strictly dedicated to trams.
However, she also looked at two tramways that had started in Marseilles after 2000. Comparing before and after data, Maitre found something at odds with her earlier research.
(I)n the streets affected by the tram, the effect attributable to the implementation of the tramway system is an accident reduction of approximately 64%. This effect may partly result from the layout of the re-designed public space in these streets, but this could also result from the decrease of traffic volume, since modern tramways in French cities tend to strongly reduce the space allocated to cars in the streets where they are implemented. Overall, the beneficial effect of tram (in terms of safety) suggested by these results remains questionable, however, since the possibility that car traffic and accidents may partly migrate towards other parts of the road network cannot be excluded.
I haven’t found any similar & completed studies that critique Maitre’s recent findings. The idea that trams and street-running LRT reduce accidents or fatalities in the general area warrants further examination and that’s supposed to be part of the Dumbaugh-Brakewood research project.
But other notable European tram/LRT research points to safety problems. Working with Norwegian data, Friduly Sagber and Inger-Anne F. Saetermo concluded that trams had, if anything, worse safety numbers than I posted in the first article. Using per passenger-km, “the total risk of accidents for the tram is 3 times higher than for the bus.” But more importantly for my argument that street-running LRT is warping American LRT safety data, they found that segregated track has about a tenth of the collisions of other types.
Annika Hedelin approached tram safety research from a public health background. Publishing with two co-authors, she found similar numbers for comparing bus and tram safety, although these are vehicle-mile rather than passenger-mile.
The risk of suffering a non-fatal injury was four times higher per vehicle-kilometer for tram traffic compared with bus traffic, while the risk of death was 9–15 times higher for tram traffic. The injury incidence in relation to age had a biphasic shape with the highest risks for young and old people. However, the tram injury rate for men was highest for middle aged men (30–49 years at age). Three quarters of those injured both in bus and tram incidents sustained their injuries at bus or tram stops, or at pedestrian crossings. One third of the injury cases with trams, and one quarter with buses, occurred in the dark.
And in my prior post on LRT safety, I linked to a Vancouver blogger who found subways to be an order of magnitude safer than LRT in France.
As in the United States, the decision is made to lay down street-running LRT without seriously considering the safety advantages of alternatives. During design, some effort is made to lay out a safe rail line at the chosen grade, but more effort is spent afterwards mopping up. Across Europe, transit agencies have spent a lot of money to improve LRT’s interactions with other street users at safety “hotspots”. Eventually, agencies turn to safety promotional campaigns.
Consider Dublin’s LUAS, which is apparently a well-run LRT system. Derailments and crashes with heavy duty trucks are usually the only time LRT passengers are endangered— consider this 2012 collision with a refuse truck. The larger threat is for guilty and oblivious street users. Consider the auto crash video clips LUAS released in their campaign to stop drivers from running red lights. Then there’s this near-misses video showing how cyclists almost died because they weren’t paying attention. And here’s the same scare tactics message— that LUAS is life-threatening— going out to pedestrians.
Of course, it’s never LUAS’s fault. Everyone just needs to act like LUAS expects them to act. To help drivers act like LUAS expects, Ireland’s first red light camera was installed with LUAS in mind.
Grade separated rail with platform doors is the Vision Zero of transit. While some European metros are retrofitting, notably Copenhagen, East Asia is leading the way on rail safety. Perhaps due to cultural norms concerning suicide, mainland China has made platform screens the norm, with Japan and Korea just a couple steps behind. In America… well, not so much…