June 03, 2004

Trolley Dead Pool

The Ventura Trolley - the light rail line connecting downtown Minneapolis with the Airport and the Mall - will be opening in the next couple of weeks.

I predict blood flowing through the gutters. Unlike Wes Skoglund, my prediction will be correct.

My hometown, Jamestown ND, was a railroad town from time immemorial. The Northern Pacific ran straight through the center of town. Forty-odd trains passed through Jamestown every day, and when they did, except for a single, antiquated two-lane underpass dating to the 1910s, there was literally no way to get from the north side of town to the south. This was no laughing matter; while sometimes the trains were mile-long fast freights that sailed through town in minutes, others were slower - or worse, spent half an hour backing in and out of spurs at the railroad yard on the southwest side of town. When that happened, the traffic jams at the little underpass on Fourth Avenue became downright sisyphean. It was said that if you lived your whole life in Jamestown, you'd spend two years waiting for trains.

But I digress; one of the big lessons I learned growing up there was "stay the hell away from tracks. All tracks. Period". I've seen what happens when people, and cars, meet trains; when I was a kid, my paper route ran along the tracks. One night, a drunk wandered in front of an oncoming freight in the middle of a cold night; an 800-foot-long slick of blood and goo was still visible the next day. Another time, in tenth grade, I saw a car swerve through the crossing gates, smack into an oncoming freight. The train was coming out of the switches, so it wasn't moving all that fast, and it still wadded up the car like a used kleenex.

So last March, when my office moved down to Fifth Street in downtown Minneapolis, I walked out on the street - and jumped back in mute shock.

The tracks run along the street, at street level. There's not even a particularly pronounced curb separating the sidewalk from the tracks. I think anyone who's ever taken a group of toddlers for a walk, or watched a group of cotton-candy-for-brains junior high kids whirling down a busy sidewalk can see where the problem is, right?

And they kept a lane of westbound traffic on Fifth Street. Signs at the intersection politely warn people "don't turn onto the tracks", which I'm sure will make a big impression on, say, a driver from North Oaks who gets downtown once a year and is overwhelmed by rush-hour traffic, when it's hard enough to read signs at all...

So this is what I think - and believe me, I'm not playing this for laughs, not at all:

  • I think we'll have our first serious train/pedestrian accident within three months.
  • I think we'll see a serious train/car collision sooner than that.
And yes, in this case I hope I'm wrong.

Posted by Mitch at June 3, 2004 10:18 AM

I commute from Eagan to the U by way of Hiawatha. The tracks run parallel to Hiawatha. Train service hasn't even started yet, but it's already pissing me off -- whenever they run a test car down the tracks, stoplights in *both* directions turn red until the car has cleared the intersection.

I thought this was a pretty stupid idea -- I mean, they've got giant arms to block traffic perpendicular to the tracks -- but after reading this, I'm not so sure. There are plenty of drivers and pedestrians too stupid to heed a red arrow and the various other warnings. Kids are constantly crossing Hiawatha (40 mph limit, with drivers regularly exceeding 50 mph) without the benefit of a crosswalk -- what's to stop them from trying something equally stupid with a train?

Posted by: Kris at June 3, 2004 11:47 AM

Light rail was a complete disaster for its first few months here. Bunch of accidents, handful of fatalities. Almost all of them involved vehicles.

The accidents seem to have leveled off as word has gotten out that, hey, there are TRAINS NOW.

Some of the contributing factors
1) No one in Houston walks anywhere. In the summer, this is understandable, as the average temperature is 836 degrees and humidity general hovers around 113 percent. We keep driving in the pleasant fall/winter/spring weather mostly out of habit and orneriness.
2) Like your situation, our trains are at street level, dissecting two-way streets that before offered illegal left turns without the potential of several tons of steel smashing into you. Simpler times, those.
3) The trains are very quiet, and it's easy to get distracted if you are, say, on a cellphone in a SUV with the windows up, AC on, and a bunch of kids in the back seat in dire need of corraling.

So I think your expectations for chaos especially early on are well-founded. However, Minnesotans strike me as being significantly more, um, reasonable than Texans so I imagine you'll adapt and cope much better than we have.

Here's a USA Today article from March that contributed to our stunted sense of civic pride!

Posted by: Steve in Houston at June 3, 2004 12:42 PM

Coincidentally, has a piece today on the 42nd collision with Houston's "Danger Train" (as he and Laurence at call it).

"...Minnesotans strike me as being significantly more, um, reasonable than Texans..."

Nice that Steve in Houston thinks that, but he must have never tried to merge during rush hour on the crosstown commons...

Posted by: Steve Gigl at June 3, 2004 03:21 PM

This is true, Steve G. Though down here, we have two fabulous concentric loops around the city that could serve as NASCAR training grounds. The beauty of it is, if you're prevented from exiting by the semis driving 70+ mph, you will eventually circle back to it. Eventually.

Teaching kids to drive on the loops down here is akin to hurling your infant into the Marianas Trench in order to teach her/him how to swim.

Posted by: Steve in Houston at June 3, 2004 04:04 PM

Much as I think Lightrail is a government monstrosity, I think your fears of carnage on the tracks are somewhat unfounded. We have the same system you describe here in Sacramento, and there really are not that many problems. Sure, maybe the body count was high when it opened, but Mitch, it is for the greater good, isn't it? Except that body count will most likely consist of homeless drunks and drug addicts.

Posted by: James Ph. at June 3, 2004 11:10 PM

We were in "the Cities" in late March of this year...driving downtown finding our way to the Radisson Plaza. We made a turn onto a street and suddenly we were driving on "the tracks"! I just about died wondering if we could do the same stupid thing once the trains are actually running...could we?! We're not dumb people...just people from waaaay up north (Warroad) that are unfamiliar with things due to getting to Minneapolis only about 3 or 4 times a year. We can't be the only ones this sort of thing will happen to. Now I'm afraid to come back after reading Mitch's post...actually, I will be so hyper-aware my husband will probably tell me to stuff a sock in it!

Posted by: Colleen at June 4, 2004 12:26 AM

They put in light rail in San Jose, CA some ten years ago or more. I don't recall any really abnormal body count, despite the ground level tracks, etc.

It was simply annoying by forcing traffic to stop unexpectedly in downtown and on major intersections, killing the plan of carefully timed light.

Then again, commuter 'heavy' rail has always been a backbone of the peninnsula's transit system.

Posted by: aodhan at June 4, 2004 10:25 AM