Utah ranks high in TRAX accidents, but UTA says Salt Lake's light rail is unique

Published: Friday, Nov. 4 2011 11:56 p.m. MDT

The Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office investigates a fatal UTA TRAX train and car accident near 4100 South and 200 West in Salt Lake City, Thursday, March 11, 2010.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — On Monday, a tow-truck driver was injured when his vehicle was smashed by a TRAX train in a spectacular accident.

In a separate incident later that night, another car was damaged in a minor collision with a TRAX train at 300 West and South Temple. The two collisions marked the eighth and ninth incidents involving TRAX trains in 2011 and the third and fourth incidents in October alone.

But does Salt Lake City have a higher rate of accidents than other cities with similar-sized light-rail systems?

The Deseret News looked at statistics compiled in the National Transit Database by the Federal Transit Administration. The data was generated by monthly reports submitted by the individual rail transit agencies.

From 2007 to 2010, UTA had 94 incidents on its TRAX lines resulting in 84 injuries and seven deaths, according to the NTD. The Federal Railroad Administration, however, reported nine fatalities during the same time period. The Utah Transit Authority could not immediately account for the discrepancies in the reports.

In making comparisons to other cities, the Deseret News randomly selected light-rail systems that had approximately the same miles of tracks. The NTD reported Salt Lake County has approximately 40 miles of fixed track line. UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter noted the actual number from 2007 to 2010 was more in the neighborhood of 22 miles — 16 miles from downtown to Sandy and 6 miles to the University of Utah. In August, an additional 17 miles of TRAX lines were added when the new west-side lines went active.

When comparing the number of fatalities and injuries alone, UTA's light-rail system ranks high.

• The Denver-Aurora, Colo., light-rail system has about 72 miles of track. The NTD reported three deaths and 22 injuries over the four-year period.

• The light-rail system in Minneapolis has about 26.5 miles of track. They reported five deaths and 45 injuries from 2007-2010.

• The Santa Clara Valley's light-rail system, in California, which has approximately 80 miles of fixed track, had eight fatalities during the same four-year time period and 39 injuries in 36 incidents.

• Sacramento's light-rail system, which has approximately 72 miles of track, recorded 94 incidents over that four-year stretch, including five deaths and 88 injuries.

• The Tri-County Metro light rail in Portland has approximately 95 miles of fixed track, more than double Salt Lake's tracks miles. The NTD recorded 168 incidents resulting in seven fatalities and 162 injuries.

Carpenter said UTA recognizes it's on the upper end of the rankings when it comes to number of incidents, fatalities and injuries, and the administration has made safety a top priority.

"We're very concerned about that," he said.

But comparing UTA to other light-rail systems isn't completely an apples-to-apples situation, he says.

"Salt Lake City is really unique," Carpenter said. "We're all reporting data the same way, but every community is unique."

To make an accurate comparison, Carpenter said factors such as population density, frequency of train service and how many light-rail systems are sharing the roadway with other vehicles needs to be looked at.

Salt Lake is often compared with light-rail systems in Las Vegas, Tucson and Memphis, Carpenter said. But the Memphis system has trains that operate at slow speeds which rarely get into accidents.

The Valley Metro Rail system in Phoenix, which has 43 miles of fixed track, only started operating in 2009. But according to NTD statistics, it already had 113 incidents resulting in 118 injuries through 2010. The Phoenix light-rail system goes through Arizona State University and other heavy vehicle traffic areas.

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