Passenger rail services operating on, and sharing rails with freight trains are the most accident prone, yet least adaptable of mass transportation systems. While the essentially nineteenth century steel wheeled, steel rail technology of the nations railroad network has served, and continues to serve the rail freight industry, attempts to modify and adapt passenger trains to service on the same tracks have met with little success. Limitations on both the safety and quality of passenger service imposed by railroad system technology result in marginal service at ever-increasing expense; and ever-widening threats to the safety of riders and surrounding environments alike.
Incompatibility of passenger train services with the basic freight transportation operations of national railroads results in delay and disruption of freight movement wherever passenger trains share the rails. Whenever the right of way priorities and safety precautions taken to protect passenger trains fail, riders, train personnel and equipment are subjected to great danger. And, as the Southern California Regional Rail Authority has experienced, there are very limited options or measures that can be employed to improve the safety of such passenger service operations on freight rail systems and tracks. The fundamentally incompatible use of the same rails by both freight and passenger trains is not amenable or subject to significant technological or mechanical safety improvement.
Another dimension of hazard, and serious threat to vehicles and pedestrians occurs at virtually every point at which streets, highways, sidewalks and public open spaces intersect or cross railroad tracks. Dated and improperly operating crossing gates, equipment and other barriers to train tracks has proven to be inadequate in many instances, leading to a long history of collisions on tracks and in vehicle crossing areas. The threat of collisions has been magnified by the introduction of Metrolink and other commuter train services that pass through street crossings at up to 80 miles per hour on tracks that historically carried freight trains at lower speeds. Collisions and wrecks have dramatically increased in frequency and severity; accounting for the greatest numbers of accidents, deaths and injuries of any mass transportation mode. The high speeds at which Metrolink and commuter trains travel lead to the complete destruction of vehicles in their path, as well as, disastrous derailments of the fast moving passenger trains.
Any improvements short of completely separating passenger train services from all other railroad systems and tracks will be limited, partial solutions to the safety and hazardous conditions under which Amtrak, Metrolink and other passenger rail services currently operate. The Los Angeles County MTA’s May, 2011 decision to allocate $6,000,000 to one of its 312-street and highway crossings illustrates the extent and magnitude of the Metrolink passenger system in Southern California. While the $6,000,000 Glendale crossing is among the most dangerous of the system’s street crossings, due to some 65 propane tanker trucks crossing the high-speed tracks each day, all other crossings that subject vehicles and pedestrians to trains passing through the crossings at speeds up to 80 miles per hour present a wide range of hazardous conditions throughout the system. Notwithstanding the commitment of millions of dollars in safety improvements to a few Amtrak and Metrolink at-grade rail crossings, the inherently dangerous nature of the crossing of trains and virtually any other form of transportation or human activity should have long since changed the US rail industry away from any further at grade expansion or development, toward the progressive separation of rail lines from street, highway and urban settings. Viewed in this context, introduction or expansion of passenger rail services in street and urbanized environments, whether on existing or new rails, must be realistically considered to be counterproductive and unnecessarily dangerous.