There's been a lot of talk about rail safety in Los Angeles lately, since the Gold Line Eastside Extension just opened and the Exposition Line will open late 2010 or early 2011 in South LA. Some people, such as the people at the Citizen's Campaign to Fix the Expo Rail Line are concerned about at-grade crossings. At-grade means an intersection, two paths crossing at the same level, whereas "grade separated" means the train would run either above or below ground.
Grade separated rail is safer, faster and takes away less land from other uses. The only real catch is, it's much more expensive. We therefore have a choice here in LA with our limited resources: have a bigger, but slower and more dangerous rail system, or have a smaller, safer and faster rail system.
I have to admit, I'm still trying to decide which is best. My intuition tells me there's something problematic about excoriating the safety record of at-grade trains. After all, isn't the same common sense that's necessary to keep people from being hit by a car what will keep them from being hit by a train? If anything, trains are easier to see and hear, and travel more predictably than cars. The Expo Line, for example, will run at-grade near Dorsey High School in South LA and from the descriptions we hear, we would think that the train is introducing a new risk to Exposition Blvd., just north of the campus, when in fact it will be an element of an existing threat: the street itself. If the students currently think that jaywalking across the street is acceptable, we already have a serious safety problem. I haven't seen convincing evidence that at-grade light rail is less safe than driving (after all, if there were no trains the train riders would be getting around in part by adding new threats to the road system as drivers). I have seen convincing evidence that it is less safe than grade-separated rail.
Real people do lose their lives at at-grade crossings. The crossings create noise impacts for communities as trains honk their horns for safety. They don't deliver as much traffic benefit as drivers would like. Trains run more slowly out of safety concerns, and have to wait for lights, making them less useful to commuters. I made a personal choice to move to a neighborhood that has grade separated rail (the subway), so I clearly value its benefits.
This is complex stuff, and it won't be resolved today. Success requires making the methods and values the go into conclusions crystal clear, and articulating an inspiring, hopeful vision. It also requires a recognition that politicians tend to want short-term progress to show off in each part of the county.
I have no plans to boycott our exiting rail lines which run partially at grade. We desperately need alternatives to the car in LA, and Metro needs support to get the kind of funding it would need to build more miles of a better rail system. On the other hand, it is vital that communities be treated fairly. If grade separated rail is good enough for the West Side, it's good enough for South LA.