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Reckless acts abound around TRAX trains

Published December 28, 2011 11:01 am

Careless behavior could be why UTA has had a rash of accidents this year, including five fatalities.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

After exiting a TRAX train at Courthouse Station, the strolling couple chats facing each other — not noticing another train approaching on the other track. The man is about to walk in front of that second train to cross to the street, but the woman pulls him back just in time.

It is one of 79 potentially fatal acts around TRAX trains witnessed in just two hours by TheTribune on a recent weekday afternoon while watching monitors at the TRAX operations center. That averages out to one about every 90 seconds.

And that came while watching monitors for just 10 TRAX stations. It didn't count what may have happened at the 31 other TRAX stations or the 112 gated crossings that TRAX traverses — or what may have happened in the FrontRunner commuter train system or around the Utah Transit Authority's buses.

"I'm sure people elsewhere in the system were doing plenty of silly things, too" says Bill Hunter, TRAX operations supervisor who watched the monitors with a Tribune reporter.

Such carelessness may show why UTA trains have suffered a rash of 17 accidents, including five fatalities, as its TRAX system doubled in length this year with new extensions. Union Pacific freight trains also had five fatalities in Utah accidents this year, and Amtrak suffered two.

The accidents prompted UTA to launch a massive campaign stressing safety around trains, including a $155,000 ad blitz since last month on TV, radio, billboards and on trains themselves.

The Tribune requested permission to watch monitors during rush hour one weekday to watch for safety stupidity despite the ad campaign. It saw everything from pedestrians ignoring lowered gates and flashing lights to cars gunning through lowering gates to beat trains to people running in front of approaching trains. A minute-by-minute log of what was seen is online at http://bit.ly/uTToYq.

TheTribune started watching monitors at 4 p.m. Thursday. The first major safety violation is seen at 4:01 — a man at Gallivan Center decides to walk inside the TRAX tracks instead of walking on the platform or a sidewalk. "It happens all day long," Hunter says.

TheTribune sees people walking down tracks three more times in the next two hours. People jaywalk through tracks another 23 times.

Violations are witnessed right up to the end of the two-hour period at 6 p.m., when jaywalkers in front of a train at the Temple Square Station prevent it from leaving — apparently having faith the train would see them and not proceed.

Almost simultaneously at 6 p.m. at the Millcreek Station on 33rd South, a group of pedestrians ignores a lowered gate and flashing lights to cross the tracks anyway after one train had passed. Luckily no train is approaching on the second set of tracks there.

During the two hours, TheTribune witnesses pedestrians ignoring lowered gates and flashing lights seven other times.

One of the scarier acts is a car racing already lowering gates at Millcreek — gunning through the crossing and switching lanes to avoid backed-up traffic ahead to beat a train. Ironically, a police car is stopped in an adjacent lane. After the train passes, the police car doesn't wait for the gates to rise fully before proceeding — and just misses hitting them as they rise.

"We've already had people hit [and knock down] two gates today," Hunter says, one at a Redwood Road crossing in West Jordan and another at Vine Street in Murray. He says it isn't unusual to have several gates hit each week by impatient drivers.

The Tribune witnesses two other cars race through already lowering gates in the two hours, and five instances of cars leaving early and almost hitting rising gates. It also sees six instances of cars stopped on tracks because of traffic back-ups in front of them.

Another frightening moment comes when a crowd on a full platform at Temple Square Station surges forward as a train approaches, pushing several people across the yellow safety line. The train stops, and appears to honk. As some people move back, it pulls slowly into the station. All told, The Tribune witnesses nine instances of people on the wrong side of the yellow line, and too close to the edge of platforms, as trains approach. "If not for the defensive driving of the TRAX operators, we would have many more deaths," Hunter says. "We have close calls every day."

Distraction also is common. One man is dancing, apparently to music on headphones, on the Central Pointe platform with his back to an approaching train. He is on the wrong side of the yellow line.

Similarly, a man talking on a cell phone on the Gallivan Plaza platform also is beyond the yellow line with his back to an approaching train — which appears to slow and honk to get him to move.

Some people have too much faith that TRAX trains can or will stop for them. One example: several people walk in front of a train approaching the Murray Central Station at a point barely beyond where it would normally stop. Hunter says that with any rain, ice or even leaves on tracks, trains often slide and are unable to stop where they normally do.

Other people run in front of trains approaching stations. TheTribune counts 20 instances of people cutting in front of approaching trains, running ahead trying to catch them.

"We have a motto: if you have to run for a train, it's not your train — the next one is," Hunter says. "It's dangerous, and you almost never catch that train anyway."

One fatality occurs during the two-hour observation period — a dog. It runs in front of a train in a residential area in West Jordan, and an operator radios in that he has hit and killed it. That is a reminder that trains often are in residential areas now, and present danger for the unwary.

Hunter says it is not unusual to see so many problems during a rush hour, and remarks that it was actually a little slower than usual with fewer commuters because many may have left town early for Christmas travel.

"I see this and more every day," he says. Does that build his confidence that people are sensibly cautious around trains? "Not really," he says, shaking his head.