by John Gaver
Houston. We have a problem.
Houston's former Mayor Lee P. Brown, backed by a variety of downtown Houston businesses, including Enron, wanted a modern light rail system for downtown that, as they said, would put Houston on the map. Well, they got their wish. Houston's new MetroRail has certainly put Houston on the map, but not in the way they planned.
The new MetroRail system, now just under five months into normal public operation, is indeed, drawing all kinds of national attention, because of the national records that it is breaking. Unfortunately, the records that are being broken are the kind that Houston Mayor Bill White, the City Council and the MetroRail Board, would just as soon forget. You see, in just the first four months of public operation, Houston's rail safety record has become the absolute worst on record in the entire United States and by a very wide margin, at that. Jokes abound about Houston having used dual use technologies to turn their mass transit system onto their own private weapon of mass destruction (WMD). Just don't tell the Bush administration or they'll invade Houston.
As an example of the records being set, according to a KHOU television report, the Houston MetroRail has the dubious distinction of having been involved in more traffic accidents in its first two months of public operation, than any rail system, in any other city, over the entire first year of operation - not exactly a record to be proud of. Then consider the fact that the 7.5 mile route of the Houston MetroRail system is far shorter than that of any of those other cities and you will realize that the magnitude of the MetroRail failure is multiplied, since a shorter route, should logically mean fewer accidents. Is it any wonder then, that, many Houstonians now laughingly refer to it in such terms as, the "Wham-Bam-Tram" or the "Streetcar Named Disaster".
(Update 7/23/04: Since the original publication of this article, Action America has learned that a San Francisco rail system actually holds the national record, at 61 crashes in 2001. I initially thought that the entire 61 crashes was attributed to the BART system, but thanks to an email from an alert and knowledgable reader, who had a link to the exact report that I have been searching for, I went back and did some more research and learned that the 61 crashes, though accurate, was actually for the San Francisco, MUNI Rail System. The BART system, which has no grade crossings, only had 17 accidents, over it's 103 mile route in 2001 - a very respectable number, I might add. To put this in perspective, if the Wham-Bam-Tram had such a low crash rate, it would have only had one crash, up to now and would not be known as well, by the term, "Wham-Bam-Tram", as its proper name, "MetroRail".
This actually makes the Wham-Bam-Tram look slightly better than if the 61 crashes had been representative of BART's 103 route miles, since the MUNI system included only 73.3 route miles of track. That comes out to a crash rate of 0.83 crashes per route mil per year. The Wham-Bam-Tram, already at 52 crashes, just under 7 months into the year, will have roughly 82 crashes this year, at the current rate. That crash rate calculates out to 11 crashes per route mile, per year. Again, to put this in perspective, if the MUNI system had a crash rate as bad as the Wham-Bam-Tram, it would have had 806 crashes in 2001, instead of only 61.
The current Wham-Bam-Tram crash rate is roughly 2000% worse than the national average, of 0.55 crashes per route mile, per year.
We apologize for any inaccuracies in previous reports. Being a small operation, we do not have news bureaus in other cities and must rely upon news sources, who do. Occasionally, as Rush would say, one of the members of our "vast and unpaid research department" will provide us the information that we seek and for them, we are very grateful. We were always satisfied with the accuracy of the 61 crashes in San Francisco, as representing the record. But now, we are glad to be able to provide the correct details, to go with it. You can find these and other details in the National Transit Database Data Tables for 2001. Select table 20 for mileage and table 22 for accidents.)
Light rail supporters are quick to point out that, in every one of the now, 41 MetroRail accidents (see counter and list), police placed the blame on the driver of the automobile. Metro officials and other proponents refuse to admit that the design of the system is largely to blame for most, if not all of the accidents. Certainly, the drivers are at least partially to blame. But, the sheer number and frequency of accidents points to an underlying design flaw in the system - a flaw that has created an environment conducive to driver error.
Since January 1, 2004, when the Houston MetroRail began official operation, it has earned its "Wham-Bam-Tram" reputation, by racking up 36 accidents and 5 more occurred during limited trials in November and December, with 24 people injured in those accidents. That averages out to one accident every 4.1 days of official operation. If that rate continues for the rest of the year and there is no reason to believe that it won't, the total for the year will be roughly 89 accidents or more than 20 times as many accidents per route mile, than any other city's light rail system has ever recorded in any single year of operation. But, according to the Federal Transit Administration and reported in the Houston Chronicle, when measured using the national standard of "accidents per route mile", that crash rate is 25 times greater than the national average and the trend isn't getting any better.
It should be noted that when Houston's MetroRail supporters were trying to generate public support for the vote on light rail, they told voters that it would take automobiles off the road. They just didn't mention that it would do it, one car at a time.
A KHOU television investigation found that the cost to repair the damaged rail cars exceeded $600,000 at the end of February. Project that out to 12 months and the annual cost to repair the rail cars will exceed $3.5 million. These are certainly not the kind of expenses that Houston taxpayers were led to expect. Houston Metro officials say that they expect to recover those repair costs from the insurance companies representing the drivers. But, as I will show in a moment, such expectations are not only overly optimistic, but that approach could well backfire on Metro, costing taxpayers even more.
Those who supported Houston's light rail project are now trying to blame the huge number of accidents on the aggressive nature of Houston drivers. But, if that were the case, then Houston would have a similarly high number of non-rail related accidents. They don't. The fact that the number of accidents along the Houston MetroRail line far exceeds the average for Houston, as well as the accident rate of any other rail system in the nation, clearly takes Houston drivers out of the picture and places the blame where it belongs - on poor design and implementation.
If the Houston MetroRail accident numbers were 10%, 20% or even 50% higher than any other city, an argument might be made that area drivers were solely to blame. If the Houston numbers were double that of any other city, then we would have to, at least, give serious consideration to the possibility of a causative flaw in the design of the MetroRail system. But, the Houston MetroRail accident numbers are not 10%, 50% or even 100% more than any other city. Their annual total will likely be more than 2000% that of any other rail system, in any other city and 2500% above the national average. Such overwhelming numbers leave no doubt that there is a very serious causative flaw in the design of Houston's MetroRail system. Even so, Houston Metro officials, refusing to admit to a problem with their new toy, will not shut the train down while the problem is analyzed and corrected.
Let's look at this from a different perspective. If a company that manufactured ladders were to start selling a new model of ladder and they suddenly started getting confirmed reports of people falling off of that new model of ladder, at a rate 20 times that of any other similar ladder on the market, they would immediately issue a recall of that ladder, even before determining for sure, if indeed, there was a flaw in the ladder's design or manufacture. They would do that for one very simple business reason - to limit liability. They could figure out the problem later. But, if they let the defective ladders continue to be sold and it was later determined that the ladder was at fault, they would not only be opening their company up for a class action lawsuit, but because they failed to issues a prompt recall, they would probably be found to be negligent, which would multiply the size of any judgment.
Now, let's switch back to the Houston Wham-Bam-Tram. Ok, so that's not really its name. But it sounds so catchy. By continuing to run the MetroRail, even after such overwhelming evidence that there is some underlying design flaw, Houston Metro officials are setting up Metro and the City of Houston for a huge class action lawsuit and establishing a solid case for negligence.
But, it gets worse. Although such a suit might be filed by the drivers of the many vehicles involved in MetroRail crashes and litigated by one of Houston's ambulance chasing lawyers, the suit that the City of Houston really needs to fear, is the suit by the massed automobile insurance companies that don't want to have to pay out that $3.5 million a year to repair MetroRail cars, over and above the cost to repair the insured automobiles involved. Furthermore, since the insurance companies have deep pockets, such a suit will certainly be litigated by a major law firm.
The statistics already speak for themselves, but the insurance companies will, no doubt, show up with dozens of expert witnesses. Not only would it be an open and shut case, but because Metro failed to take the train out of service when it became obvious that there was a serious problem with its design or implementation, the plaintiffs will be able to demonstrate negligence on behalf of Metro, thus boosting the size of the judgment or negotiated settlement and the subsequent cost to Houston taxpayers.
Every day that the MetroRail train stays in service, increases the likelihood of a major class action suit against the City of Houston and Metro and also increases the likely size of the judgment, in any such suit. If Metro is not going to take this menace to public safety out of service, while its numerous problems are analyzed and fixed, maybe they should, at least, give it a paint scheme worthy of its ominous threat to public safety. At least that way, when those lawsuits hit, Metro can claim that they tried to warn the public.
With all the people around the country laughing at Houston, over this fiasco, it's nice to know that, at least Houstonians can still laugh at it themselves. Perhaps, as the saying goes, they are only laughing, to keep from crying.
For lot's of links to articles relating to the Wham-Bam-Tram, see http://www.talesfromtherail.com/
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