Riding the rails to safety

When it comes to public safety, there’s always room for improvement

Cameron Gordon

Government and governance, Science and technology, Arts, culture & society | Australia

22 May 2019

Canberra’s new light rail transit has many advantages, but regulators must continue to improve certain aspects of the system to maximise citizen safety, Cameron Gordon writes.

On 20 April, Canberra opened an entirely new transport mode – light rail transit (LRT). LRT, distinguished from heavy rail transit (HRT), such as commuter trains or Metro systems, is used widely across global cities. Major expansions to existing LRT are underway now elsewhere – even close by with the troubled Sydney project. But Canberra’s introduction of rail-based transit is fairly unique.

LRT is generally seen as more efficient than bus transit, which was the main justification for introducing it to Canberra. But is it any safer?

In Canberra and elsewhere, LRT interacts with car and pedestrian traffic, so to ensure maximum safety, a degree of separation from the road is required. This can be accomplished by having a dedicated track to run on, separate from auto lanes, for example.

The capital city cleared a large median strip along Northbourne Avenue of trees to place rails, leaving existing roads on either side in place. Even when the route moves off Northbourne, a dedicated corridor for LRT preserves existing automobile lanes.

However, unlike heavy rail, which is often underground and away from existing roads and streets, or at least heavily grade-separated from streets with major curbs and sometimes fences too, LRT’s segregation from traffic is much lighter. Canberra LRT runs along roads, at the same level grade, with minimal fencing and a lot of interaction with cars and people, especially at stations and street crossings.

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This layout can present a range of problems. To begin, LRT is running at a flow and speed quite separate from automobile traffic, exacerbated by separate signalling at intersections for rails and cars.  This makes crossings for drivers and walkers more complex as they now have to account for at least four different flows: cars, pedestrians, LRT, and even cyclists.

Secondly, pedestrians and cyclists crossing the rails outside of signalled intersections can easily make a fatal mistake, crossing when auto traffic seems light, but getting caught out by a fast-moving train in-between lanes.

Thirdly, passengers awaiting and boarding LRT are much closer to the train than they would be at a typical HRT stop, thus being more at risk. Fourth, and finally, the consequences of LRT-operator errors at intersections can be fatal.

All of these risks are exacerbated when an entirely new LRT mode is introduced, as it has been in Canberra, with auto drivers, pedestrians, and rail operators not yet being acclimatised to its existence.

There are three broad areas through which LRT operators could minimise the above risks. Firstly, there’s public awareness, conditioning, and enforcement, secondly, design and engineering, and finally, LRT operating regimes.

In Canberra, the major push has been on the first of these categories, with a ‘Rail Ready’ media and information campaign instructing riders on how to safely interact with the new transport system. Prior to LRT’s opening, safety officers were vigorously stopping people from crossing at the rail signals until they turned green, even when trains weren’t running at the time, to condition people to stop when they were red. Even now with LRT operating, these officers continue to enforce the road rules.

Design and engineering strategies have also been employed, using standard devices of separate signals at LRT crossings on top of existing road signals. On Northbourne Avenue, there are now three signals at stations rather than two – one when crossing the road from a footpath to the rails, another when crossing the rail itself, and a final one when crossing the road to the footpath on the opposite side. On top of this, there are also ‘zig-zag’ pedestrian crossings to force people to slow down and pay attention as they approach the rails.

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Melbourne’s experience is instructive in terms of how these strategies actually work: while essential, they need to be properly contextualised, designed to fully account for the local peculiarities of the built environment and traffic habits.

For example, human tendencies to go the shortest distance between two points need to be accepted and designed around, not ‘engineered’ away. ‘Zig-zag’ routes can be particularly unpopular and ignored if they’re all that stand between pedestrians and crossings. Canberra will need to adjust according to local inclinations as it goes.

As for LRT operating regimes, an obvious way to increase safety is to slow services down, especially at stops, intersections, and informal crossings where people and even cars may be tempted to take short-cuts or U-turns for convenience.

However, as speed is one of the main attractions of this particular transport technology, a desire for efficiency and meeting operating targets can be a major operational risk to safety. This is something that any LRT operator needs to be mindful of.

Safety statistics are complex, but overall, urban public transit is much safer than travelling by car. So, to the extent that LRT moves people out of their autos, safety is increased. But LRT safety, especially for a new system like Canberra’s, is not to be taken for granted. Fortunately, there is lots of experience from other cities to draw on.

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