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Utah ranks high in TRAX accidents, but UTA says Salt Lake's light rail is unique

SALT LAKE CITY — On Monday, a tow-truck driver was injured when his vehicle was smashed by a TRAX train in a spectacular accident.

In a separate incident later that night, another car was damaged in a minor collision with a TRAX train at 300 West and South Temple. The two collisions marked the eighth and ninth incidents involving TRAX trains in 2011 and the third and fourth incidents in October alone.

But does Salt Lake City have a higher rate of accidents than other cities with similar-sized light-rail systems?

The Deseret News looked at statistics compiled in the National Transit Database by the Federal Transit Administration. The data was generated by monthly reports submitted by the individual rail transit agencies.

From 2007 to 2010, UTA had 94 incidents on its TRAX lines resulting in 84 injuries and seven deaths, according to the NTD. The Federal Railroad Administration, however, reported nine fatalities during the same time period. The Utah Transit Authority could not immediately account for the discrepancies in the reports.

In making comparisons to other cities, the Deseret News randomly selected light-rail systems that had approximately the same miles of tracks. The NTD reported Salt Lake County has approximately 40 miles of fixed track line. UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter noted the actual number from 2007 to 2010 was more in the neighborhood of 22 miles — 16 miles from downtown to Sandy and 6 miles to the University of Utah. In August, an additional 17 miles of TRAX lines were added when the new west-side lines went active.

When comparing the number of fatalities and injuries alone, UTA's light-rail system ranks high.

• The Denver-Aurora, Colo., light-rail system has about 72 miles of track. The NTD reported three deaths and 22 injuries over the four-year period.

• The light-rail system in Minneapolis has about 26.5 miles of track. They reported five deaths and 45 injuries from 2007-2010.

• The Santa Clara Valley's light-rail system, in California, which has approximately 80 miles of fixed track, had eight fatalities during the same four-year time period and 39 injuries in 36 incidents.

• Sacramento's light-rail system, which has approximately 72 miles of track, recorded 94 incidents over that four-year stretch, including five deaths and 88 injuries.

• The Tri-County Metro light rail in Portland has approximately 95 miles of fixed track, more than double Salt Lake's tracks miles. The NTD recorded 168 incidents resulting in seven fatalities and 162 injuries.

Carpenter said UTA recognizes it's on the upper end of the rankings when it comes to number of incidents, fatalities and injuries, and the administration has made safety a top priority.

"We're very concerned about that," he said.

But comparing UTA to other light-rail systems isn't completely an apples-to-apples situation, he says.

"Salt Lake City is really unique," Carpenter said. "We're all reporting data the same way, but every community is unique."

To make an accurate comparison, Carpenter said factors such as population density, frequency of train service and how many light-rail systems are sharing the roadway with other vehicles needs to be looked at.

Salt Lake is often compared with light-rail systems in Las Vegas, Tucson and Memphis, Carpenter said. But the Memphis system has trains that operate at slow speeds which rarely get into accidents.

The Valley Metro Rail system in Phoenix, which has 43 miles of fixed track, only started operating in 2009. But according to NTD statistics, it already had 113 incidents resulting in 118 injuries through 2010. The Phoenix light-rail system goes through Arizona State University and other heavy vehicle traffic areas.

TRAX's main corridor from 6400 South to 500 South has two tracks with trains running an average of every 15 minutes, Carpenter said. That traffic gets even heavier between 2100 South and 500 South, especially with the recent additions of the two new lines running to Daybreak and West Valley City.

Prior to Monday's tow truck accident at 6100 South and 300 West, Carpenter said UTA recorded 10 trains that had gone through that intersection in a 40 minute stretch, or one train every four minutes. The downtown area has had trains running every five to seven minutes since TRAX first started operating 10 years ago.

Accidents with motorists are actually more frequent in the downtown area where the trains run alongside motor vehicles and there are few crossing arms, signals and other safety features, Carpenter said. But the accidents are generally minor because the trains are traveling at slow speeds.

Accidents outside downtown Salt Lake are less frequent, but often have more devastating results because the trains are traveling at higher speeds, sometimes up to 55 mph.

In 2010, there were many train vs. car accidents in the downtown area because of vehicles running red lights or making illegal left turns or U-turns across the train tracks.

This year has been unique, Carpenter said, in that of the nine TRAX incidents, six of them involved pedestrians. UTA is currently participating in a national study to figure out how to make train traffic safer around pedestrians.

"There's definitely an element of personal responsibility," Carpenter said. "(Trains) are big, they can't stop quickly and they can't swerve."

Pedestrians need to take preventative measures like not wearing headphones around train tracks or text, he said. But UTA doesn't want to simply say the solution is for pedestrians to be more aware of their surroundings.

"We do recognize we have a responsibility to make our system safe," Carpenter said. "We need to make our crossings safe. We want to improve our standards to protect pedestrians."

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