Grade Crossing Safety Improvement Program
Title: Grade Crossing Safety Improvement Program
The Los Angeles Metro Blue Line (MBL) is a light rail system running south from downtown Los Angeles to the City of Long Beach, which began operation in 1990. The total route is approximately 22 miles long, half of which is paralleled by Southern Pacific (SP) freight track. Vehicles and pedestrians using at-grade street crossings in areas involving SP track must cross two MBL tracks and either one or two SP tracks.
There are 100 grade crossings on the MBL; all crossings are protected by means of appropriate signs and equipment. Crossing protection devices include traffic signals, gates, flashing lights/bells, stop signs and train actuated "No Left Turn" signals at driveways and alleys in downtown Los Angeles. Train speeds vary from 35 mph in street running to 55 mph in the gated area.
From the opening of the MBL through May 1994, there have been 227 train vs. auto and train vs. pedestrian collisions, resulting in 23 deaths and numerous injuries. In March 1993, the MTA Board of Directors approved the MBL Grade Crossing Safety Improvement Program. The project was designed to implement selected improvements at MBL grade crossings which would serve to reduce the number of accidents and enhance public safety at the crossings. The MBL Grade Crossing Safety Improvement Program includes engineering, enforcement, education and legislation.
2. The Lesson
One major element of the Improvement Program has been an expansion of the grade crossing enforcement efforts. Enforcement has included the use of both Sheriff's deputies and photo enforcement systems. In particular, the MTA's use of photo enforcement at MBL crossings has generated a significant reduction in the number of grade crossing violations.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Transit Services Bureau established a traffic detail to provide for increased enforcement of traffic violations at MBL grade crossings. MBL grade crossings were analyzed to determine how best to deploy the deputies. Accident experience was one factor used to determine problem crossings. A train operator survey was conducted prior to initiation of the enforcement program to assess operator perception of problem areas. Broken gate arm locations were studied to isolate potential areas of concern. The traffic detail deputies wrote 7,760 citations in the space of 90 days. Based on the success of this demonstration program, the MTA continued the Sheriff's grade crossing safety detail for two years, resulting in the issuance of over 14,000 citations.
Photo enforcement systems use high-resolution cameras to photograph motorists driving under or around railroad crossing gates. The camera system is automatically triggered if vehicles cross inductive loop detectors installed in the crossing once the crossing gates have started down or are lowered. Two photographs, one of the vehicle's license plate and the other of the driver's face, are taken as the basis for issuing a citation. Superimposed on each photograph is the date and time of the violation as well as the speed of the violating vehicle and the number of elapsed seconds since the red flashing lights were activated at the crossing. The camera equipment is mounted in a 12-foot high bullet-resistant cabinet. Bilingual signs, which inform motorists that photo citations are being issued to violators at the crossing, are installed on all street approaches to the crossing.
Two demonstration projects were conducted at gated crossings. A seven-month demonstration project at Compton Boulevard, completed in September 1993, resulted in a 92 percent reduction in the number of violations occurring at the crossing. In spite of these efforts, one violation continues to be reported every 12 hours.
A three-month demonstration project was completed at Alondra Boulevard in September, 1993. Signs and the camera pole and cabinet were installed at this location for about six months prior to citations being issued. Grade crossing violations dropped by 78 percent, from 0.50 violations per hour in December, 1992 to 0.11 violations per hour in September, 1993 when the demonstration project was completed. A total of 364 citations were issued for violations recorded by the camera equipment at these two crossings.
Photo enforcement equipment was operational at the intersection of Washington Boulevard and Los Angeles Street for about seven months from September, 1993 through mid-April, 1994. The equipment was installed to record left turns made across the MBL tracks against a red left turn arrow. Over a six week period, a total of 510 citations were issued to violators.
The rate of left turn violations on weekdays declined by approximately 34 percent over the duration of the demonstration project, dropping from an average of 2.02 per hour during September and October to approximately 1.34 per hour for the month of March. This is a significantly lower percentage reduction than that experienced for crossing violations at Compton and Alondra Boulevards.
Recent accident statistics suggest that the MTA's enforcement efforts are having the desired results. On the route segment where trains operate at high speeds, there has been only one train/vehicle accident at gated crossings in the last 11 months. This represents an 86 percent reduction in train/vehicle accidents compared to the first three years of operation.
The installation and operation of photo enforcement for the five demonstration projects have indicated a need for special attention to specific issues, both during the demonstration projects and later when the system is made operational at 17 MBL crossings. These issues are:
- Placement of the camera equipment at crossings - including width of the crossing area, lighting conditions and the location of the signals and crossing protection equipment
- Placement of the detector loops (for left turns and at crossings where loops are already in place for traffic signals)
- Working out citation processing details with the participating courts, Department of Motor Vehicles and City or District Attorney's office
- Development of a working relationship with local law enforcement agencies
- Definition of a crossing violation, consistent with applicable sections of the California Vehicle Code for grade crossing and left turn violations
- Obtaining clarification concerning the use of photo enforcement equipment at grade crossings through discussions with Court officials and legislative initiatives.
One of the key causes of grade crossing accidents is disobedience of the existing grade crossing laws by motorists and pedestrians. The MTA successfully sponsored the California Rail Transit Safety Act, the purpose of which is to affect a decrease in the number of rail-related accidents by imposing additional fines and points upon persons who violate rail grade crossing safety laws. The Act provides County transportation authorities and law enforcement agencies with the tools needed to implement expanded enforcement and public education efforts targeted at rail grade crossing safety.
The MTA is also supporting California Senate Bill 1802 which endorses the use of photo enforcement to monitor grade crossing violations. This bill is expected to become California law on January 1, 1995.
The success of the Sheriff's enforcement and photo enforcement programs at the MTA indicates that the same programs can be applied to any urban light rail system that has at-grade railroad crossings. A key component to reducing grade crossing accidents is strict enforcement of existing laws relating to motorist and pedestrian travel over grade crossings. It is important to examine existing state legislation regarding grade crossings to determine if improvements are required.