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Memphis Should Learn From Houston's Rail Mistakes

Accidents plague system

Owen Courrèges
May 21, 2004

Living in Houston, I've been reading with trepidation reports that Memphis is considering plans for another light rail line — a nine mile extension to the airport. It's the feeling you get when you see a friend about to do something really stupid. You know you can't stop them, and that it's probably none of your business, but you can't help but worry.

Specifically, I worry because here in Houston, our seven-mile starter line known as "Metrorail" has performed in a manner that is somewhat less than ideal.

In the first few months since it opened in January, Houston's light rail trains have been involved in a total of 36 collisions (although as you read this the number has probably climbed). That's 25 times the national average.

This has gained Houston light rail a certain reputation among the populace. One person I know has taken to calling Metrorail "the danger train."

But just how does Houston's experience apply to Memphis? It's simple, really. The MATA is busy pushing their 1.5 billion dollar Regional Rail Plan, and they're looking to cut costs in order to get individual lines approved.

In Houston, we experienced a similar brouhaha when, following the failure of other, more expensive rail referendums, the Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority decided to take action without voter approval. In order to do so, however, they had to make certain sacrifices, some of which have negatively impacted safety.

Among these sacrifices was the decision to place light rail at-grade, meaning that it would run at the same level as cars on city streets. This, as opposed to the considerably more expensive but safer method of constructing a separate grade slightly higher than vehicle lanes.

The results were predictable; at-grade light rail had a horrendous safety record. Los Angeles' Blue Line, an at-grade line, caused over 50 fatalities during its first decade of operation. In Portland, those sections of the West Side Max light rail line built at-grade caused five fatalities in the line's first year.

While there haven't been any light rail fatalities in Houston yet, with the current rate of accidents, it's only a matter of time.

As you may have already guessed, MATA plans involve building long sections of the proposed airport line at-grade. Given the comparable amount of traffic between Houston's Metrorail and the presumptive airport line, Memphis can expect a high rate of accidents, and perhaps fatalities, unless this plan is changed.

Thankfully, some Memphis officials are willing to acknowledge this reality. Councilman Jack Simmons was recently quoted as saying that "street level light rail in the middle of congested traffic is not convenient and it's inefficient."

Alas, MATA president William Hudson has responded to such criticisms quite flippantly, stressing that at-grade rail will be a "learning process."

No doubt it will be a learning process, as the citizens of Memphis gradually learn what the residents of Houston already know — that transit officials routinely downplay safety issues that threaten new rail projects. They'll likely learn not to trust men like Hudson.

Yet currently more than two-thirds of Memphis residents support MATA's rail plans, and it's not difficult to understand why. Light rail is generally seen as essential public infrastructure, and to oppose rail in any form is thus viewed as selfish and short-sighted. The duty of loyal transit officials is to ensure that this perception remains dominant.

Ultimately, however, Memphis is not being well-served by either light rail or the MATA, which is making decisions based upon politics rather than public safety or even cost-effectiveness. Instead, Memphis is forced to listen to the same tired mantra which erroneously holds that light rail works and is safe.

The truth is that trains and cars don't mix. They're like oil and water. Placing them on the same grade only heightens the risk.

Now it may well be that Houston's regrettable experience with at-grade rail won't be repeated in Memphis, but the track record is clear and the concept itself is woefully ill-conceived. It's a false savings — political legerdemain masquerading as good public policy.

Don't build at-grade rail. That's just a bit of friendly advice. While all of this may be none of my business, as a Houstonian, I'd be remiss if I didn't worry.

Owen Courrèges is a research fellow in urban and land use policy at the Reason Foundation



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