Culver City Edition Lead Story News West Edition

Metro official says light rail lines have strong safety record

LOS ANGELES — While a 31-year-old USC film student remained hospitalized following a crash involving an Expo Line train Saturday, a transit official insisted Monday that Southland light rail lines have a strong safety record, and urged motorists to use Saturday’s crash as a reminder to pay careful attention at rail crossings.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesman Marc Littman told City News Service the agency’s light-rail lines — the Expo, Blue, Green and Gold lines — travel more than 1 million miles a year and carry 100 million passengers, and average just one accident with a vehicle every 200,000 miles traveled.

Those accidents range from serious wrecks to minor clashes that might only leave a car mirror damaged, he said.

“There are light rail systems in 60 cities in the United States and around the world,” Littman said. “They operate in dense urban areas with relatively few incidents.”

But when a serious crash occurs, such as the one that happened around 10:50 a.m. Saturday near USC, leaving a train derailed and a motorist hospitalized in what was described as “grave” condition, critics can be quick to assail the danger of “at-grade” crossings, where rail lines travel at street level.

USC civil engineering professor Najmedin Meshkati said following Saturday’s crash that he had warned previously about such accidents, and he told the USC Daily Trojan that grade crossings deserve new study by Metro and the California Public Utilities Commission.

“Unfortunately I am not surprised,” he told the USC student newspaper. “If we don’t take decisive action, we will have another one and another one and another one.”

Littman conceded that accidents can happen — but the same can be said about any form of transportation.

“There’s going to be an accident happening in front of City Hall too, and there’s going to be an accident on the freeway today,” he said. “You can’t build a bubble around the [light-rail] system.”

“It’s not like it’s constantly happening,” Littman said. “Keep it in perspective how often this occurs.”

He also said Metro is always looking at ways to improve safety, and is already planning to experiment with gates in left-turn lanes along the Blue Line, and using a strobe light system on the Gold Line.

“We’re always looking at ways we can improve,” Littman said. But he added for motorists and pedestrians: “You have to pay attention.”

Littman said Metro will thoroughly investigate the crash and determine why the Expo Line train smashed into the Hyundai Sonata driven by Jacob Fadley, who apparently made a left turn into the train’s path.

“There’s an issue with left turns,” Littman told City News Service. “Despite all the warning devices and everything else, people still make left turns in front of a train.”

Littman said motorists have to respect that each Metro light-rail car weighs about 100,000 pounds and can’t quickly stop to avoid a car or person on the tracks.

“This is your rail system, it’s to your benefit,” he said. “But you have to respect that those trains cannot stop on a dime.”

Yusef Robb, a spokesman for Metro board chair and Mayor Eric Garcetti, said his office “received a number of briefings” on the crash and said their “hearts go out to everyone affected.”

Robb said the mayor will consider the results of Metro’s “comprehensive investigation” of the crash to “determine, moving forward, if any policies, procedures or infrastructure changes are needed.”

The eastbound train hit the Hyundai at a traffic signal between USC and the Museum of Natural History. Authorities said both were heading east, when the car made a left turn toward the USC gate and was hit by the light rail vehicle.

Witnesses said after the Hyundai made the turn, it became wedged between a pole and the train, which derailed across both lanes of eastbound Exposition Boulevard next to the landmark Exposition Park ose garden.

Elizabeth Daley, dean of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, sent a letter to faculty and students about the crash, and saying the university has been in touch with Fadley’s family.

“While Jacob was very seriously injured, he is currently in stable condition,” Daley wrote. “We are hopeful that he will recover and be able to continue pursuing his dream of becoming a filmmaker.”

The Metro Expo line opened in 2012, running from downtown Los Angeles to Culver City. Construction is continuing on an extension of the line to Santa Monica, with testing of rail cars along the alignment scheduled to begin next week.