Safety high priority for proposed rail line

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Since it opened in June 2004, the Hiawatha light-rail transit line has been used 10.9 million times. It has also been involved in three fatal accidents, including a car passenger in 2004, a pedestrian in 2005 and a biker in South Minneapolis on Aug. 7. With the possibility of a light-rail line crossing campus as soon as 2014, there could be safety concerns for pedestrians and bikers on campus.

The most recent accident happened about 5 p.m. Aug. 7 at the corner of Hiawatha Avenue and East 46th Street. Minneapolis resident Donald B. Ralston, 58, was crossing the light-rail tracks on his bike when he was hit by the 218,000-pound train.

After the accident, Metro Transit officials said all of the warning and safety devices were working at the time of the accident. They also reported the driver saw the bike and used the train’s horn on its highest setting, in addition to activating the train’s three brake systems.

Even with the brakes activated, it takes the light-rail train the length of two football fields to stop, according to Metro Transit.

Metro Transit Chief Operating Officer Vince Pellegrin said the driver did everything he was supposed to do in that situation.

“I don’t know what to do when people ignore bells, lights and gate arms,” Pellegrin said. “The only other thing I can do is put it underground.”

That is exactly what Metro Transit plans to do with the Central Corridor line that could run under Washington Avenue. Pellegrin said this along with the measures already in place should make for a safe rail line for the campus, even with the large amount of pedestrian and bike traffic.

Pellegrin said the preliminary drawings for the Central Corridor line include “good lines of sight” for the drivers and speed restrictions, things he attributes to the Hiawatha line’s safety record.

The warning systems that would be in place on the new line include lights, horns, gate arms and even a light that tells the train’s driver whether the signals at the crossing are working. These systems would be at vehicle and pedestrian crossings.

There are more warning signals with the light-rail trains than with other trains because unlike a freight train, the light-rail train is hard to hear when it approaches, even though it can travel faster, according to Metro Transit.

“We’ve gone the extra mile to integrate warning signs in our systems,” Pellegrin said.

Traffic accidents involving pedestrians result in death more than any other type of accident. In 2005, 5 percent of the 938 pedestrians involved in an accident in Minnesota were killed, compared with the 0.5 percent who died in car accidents, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

People younger than 25 are at the greatest risk to be involved in a pedestrian crash. Forty-five percent of last year’s accidents involved people in that age group.

Pellegrin said that because of the high risk to pedestrians, light rail has designated pedestrian crosswalks with the same warnings found at car crossings.

Several University students said they think it is the pedestrian and not the vehicle that is to blame for accidents.

“Students should pay more attention,” said Carlson School of Management student Alex Shrifteylik. “Students are so impatient. They could wait five or 10 seconds and save their lives.”

Director of Parking and Transportation Bob Baker said that although it is too early for any formal discussions on safety surrounding the line, it will be one of the University’s priorities.

“Any kind of rail design has to carefully consider bike and pedestrian traffic,” Baker said. He added that the University wanted the underground line as part of these safety concerns.

Pellegrin, along with Metro Council’s Public Relations Manager Bonnie Kollodge, said it is too early to make any real plans, but that Metro Transit likely will launch a public safety campaign similar to those it had before the opening of the Hiawatha line.

“Safety is a shared responsibility,” Kollodge said. “People need to obey the rules and not take chances.”

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