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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for June 26th, 2009

The Washington Subway Crash

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This week’s events in Washington were shocking – and are also very hard to understand.

To put the apalling death toll in the subway train crash into perspective here is the death rate by mode in the US, courtesy of Todd Littman

US Death Rate By Mode The Washington subway would be included as “heavy rail”

Washington has a computer controlled train control system – and it now appears that this failed.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) confirmed that train control systems failed during investigative tests being carried out to determine the cause of the Washington DC train crash on Monday that left nine dead.

Two Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) trains collided on an above ground section of the Red Line metro railway in Washington DC at around 5pm local time when a moving train crashed into the back of a stationary one.

THE NTSB investigators have conducted tests at the accident site with a similar train and found that when the train was stopped at the same location as the train which was crashed into, the train control system lost detection of the test train.

Now investigations have to continue to determine why it “lost detection” – but also it will be necessary to determine if that would have made a difference

The operator of the struck train said he had been driving the train in manual mode during his entire shift that afternoon. He said that he saw a train in front of him and stopped to wait for the train to clear.

So it would appear that trains were being driven on “line of sight” – not using the train control system. Since “the striking train did not have any onboard accident data recorders” and the driver of that train was killed, that may not be possible to establish with respect to the striking train conclusively.


UPDATE Sunday June 28

The Washington Post is now reporting that the striking train was under automatic control – and the driver used the emergency brake properly.


On systems like SkyTrain and the Canada Line, there are no line side signals since the train control system uses a “moving block” principle to keep a safe distance between trains. When that system is overridden – for example to keep train staff familiar with emergency procedures – the train speed is restricted to half normal speed while under manual control. The only collisions that have occurred on these systems have been when the trains were being driven manually.

DLR under driver controlNormally the DLR operates automatically under the Alcatel system. But for “train captain” training purposes, they are run under operator control at half speed and “line of sight” every so often

The Docklands Light Railway (above) uses the same type of Alcatel system that SkyTrain and the Canada Line use. (The Washington system was supplied by Alsthom but it is not clear to me from this document if it is similar to the Alcatel system.)

Whatever system is installed, it is only going to work if it is in use. And one of the weaknesses of the US transit funding system is that  money is provided by the federal government to build things, but not to keep them in a state of good repair. One of the common features of the myriad press reports on Google of this crash is that the Washington subway system as a whole needed upgrading. This was also the issue that was identified in a recent highway bridge collapse – it’s not just about transit. Already senators are calling for more money for system upgrades but the “systemic problem of the billions needed each year to keep them operating” is still not being addressed.

Anymore than it is here.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 26, 2009 at 11:08 am

Posted in transit

“Business community bashes Burrard Bridge bike lane trial”

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Vancouver Courier

Once again the headline writer misleads – probably intentionally. It is not the community that is “bashing” it is Charles Gauthier “executive director of the Downtown Business Improvement Association” who does not represent everyone downtown. For example, for far too long I had to spend time in meetings over the redesign of the Granville Mall. Gauthier led the “open it up to cars” brigade – but retailers on the mall itself – people like John Fluevog who runs the eponymous shoe shop – were dead set against more cars. So the DVBIA had to trot out people like Blaine Culling – who was expanding his entertainment businesses in the scruffy end down by the bridge which was always open to cars. Or the Pacific Centre folks who had sucked the trade off the street years before.

“You’re not going to get someone from Maple Ridge to bike to Vancouver to go to the opera,” Gauthier said.

True – but so what? On my last trip to the opera I did not do any shopping either!

All over the world, town centres that have reduced the impact of cars on people trying to get around and enjoy the place have found that business improves. Indeed, that is what the suburban shopping mall tries to create – a car free, safe environment in which people can wander around. Unfortunately, since there is never much else to do inside a Mall except shop, many developers have since turned away from the conventional mall and are now trying to recreate streets.  One of the earliest I have visited was imaginatively called “The Block” and is in Orange County, near Disneyland – which of course is also (within its gates) mainly pedestrian and public transport oriented.

Gauthier seems to be completely unaware – or chooses to ignore – most of the recent literature on planning and transportation in urban areas. I have never seen him at any of the City Programme lectures – or other events where these issues are discussed objectively. The DVBIA seems to be stuck in the past.

It is also the case, as I have written here many times, that the Burrard Bridge trial will not actually reduce vehicle capacity. Because that is not a function of the number of lanes on the bridge itself but of the signal settings at the intersections at each end. I do not understand why people like Jerry Dobrovolny do not say that too. I was appalled by the editorializing that Gloria Makarenko managed to insert into a recent CBC news report on the trial where she suggested that it would inevitably lead to worse traffic congestion – because that is (she said) what happened last time.

Cities are not about making it easy for cars to drive through. We have always known that – yet had to fight off the people who hate cities like Robert Moses, as well as those who seem incapable of understanding them, like Charles Gauthier. It is people movement that matters. And it is people who spend time (and money) within the city who contribute to its wealth and well being. And increasingly, Vancouver is seeing more people walking and cycling and fewer people in cars. Which is as it should be and will inevitably continue.

There are serious concerns for businesses impacted by construction – both on Granville and, up until recently, Cambie, and of course there needs to be a process by which such businesses get heard and helped. Other places do that a lot better than we do too. But just bleating about anything that might appear to reduce car carrying capacity  is no longer credible. Just because people reduce their car use does not mean they stop spending. And of course, downtown attractions need to be worthwhile and accessible. Concentrating a lot of drinking establishments in a few blocks of Granville was probably not the best urban strategy – though it no doubt suited Mr Culling’s pocket. (And it meant the street has now to be closed to cars at closing time too!) Concentrating on chain stores and upmarket retail on Robson looks like it neglected the new residents – something at long last now being addressed. Both these mistakes can be laid at Mr Gauthier’s door. He and his cohorts pressed for these changes – and we have had to pay for them.

The present one lane trial already concedes far too much to the car brigade. But it may well reduce the collision rate – so for that reason alone is worth supporting. It also seems likely that the present Mayor may actually let the trial run its course – which may mean that it stands a better chance of a fair assessment. But you can bet your boots that Gauthier and Co will be calling for its ending long before the trail is up and will declare it a failure no matter what the actual results are.

Burrard Bridge - Critical Mass June 26, 2009

Burrard Bridge – Critical Mass June 26, 2009

The photo above was taken by “Random Dude” on flickr and has a creative commons license

Written by Stephen Rees

June 26, 2009 at 10:08 am