WASHINGTON – Commuters are more likely to get hurt on and around Baltimore’s subway than on any other heavy-rail system in the country, according to an analysis of five years of system reports.
From 1991 to 1995, almost two injuries occurred for every million miles traveled by Baltimore transit riders, a computer- aided analysis by Capital News Service revealed.
This injury rate was almost three times as high as that of Washington’s subway system and more than five times as high as one of New York’s systems, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Injuries are broadly defined as any physical damage or harm to a person, said Karen Clarke, a spokeswoman for the Federal Transit Administration, which collects data from the country’s 14 heavy-rail systems.
The Baltimore Metro’s high injury rate can be partly explained by a July 1995 train derailment that injured 68 people, said Anthony Brown, spokesman for the Maryland Mass Transit Administration. Baltimore reported 317 injuries in ’95, up from 95 injuries the year before.
The derailment, caused by a heat-induced bend in a 15-foot section of track near the Rogers Avenue station, was the system’s only accident involving passengers in its 13-year history, Brown said. All of the injuries were minor, he said.
The northbound train was traveling above ground between 25 and 30 mph when it went off its tracks. Brown said officials have subsequently watched the tracks more closely and “banged tracks back in alignment” in problem areas.
Baltimore’s tracks are made of steel, an industry standard, officials said. “It’s pretty widespread that these kinks would occur during extreme summer temperatures, and all you can do is monitor and watch railways and fix kinks,” Brown said.
Escalator accidents and people slipping in stations and parking lots have been the cause of most of the accidents on the Baltimore subway, Brown said.
“We generally think we have a safe system and we’re constantly working with our safety division” to improve it, Brown said. He said reminders of appropriate passenger behavior have been posted in stations and cars in the last two months.
When subway system injuries were reviewed as raw numbers, rather than rates, the Baltimore Metro fared better. The system’s 547 reported injuries from 1991 to ’95 placed it eighth of the nation’s systems, FTA data showed.
[CNS did not rank one system, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Staten Island Railway in New York, because 1995 data for it were not yet available.]
The Washington Metro, which reported 3,705 injuries for those five years, had the third highest number of injuries.
Injuries inflicted during crimes, such as recent robberies on the Washington Metro’s Red Line, are not included in the totals. They are not classified as injuries in heavy-rail reports to the FTA.
New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority had by far the most injuries of the systems, at 34,419 for the five years. Not coincidentally, the system is much larger than any of the others in the country, with more passengers and miles of rail.
Despite injuries on the systems, transportation experts say heavy-rail travel is generally safer than commuting by car.
“Subway travel is extremely safe, excluding crimes and suicides,” said Vukan Vuchic, professor of transportation engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s vastly safer than driving on the street, and walking on the street, because [subways] don’t cross any other traffic.”
Heavy-rail systems are electric railways with multi-car trains. They travel on tracks separated from other traffic. New York has three heavy-rail systems and Philadelphia two. Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Miami, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Washington and Baltimore each have one system.
The systems vary widely in size and age, from the 16-car, three-year-old Los Angeles subway, to the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s 4,816-car, 92-year-old system. Typically, the larger, older systems have more deaths and injuries than the smaller and newer systems.
“In general, the newer systems have more complex, computerized controls and they’re physically in better shape,” Vuchic said.
The Washington system is more than 10 times larger than the Baltimore subway in terms of passengers, miles of track and cars.
About 508,000 passengers board the Washington Metro every weekday, compared with 48,000 on the Baltimore subway.
The Baltimore system runs about 52 cars a year through 14 stations on one 15.5-mile stretch of track.
About 550 cars pass through Washington’s 74 stations on about 90 miles of track, divided into five color-coded routes.
Of the 786 injuries the Washington Metro reported in 1995, 513 occurred in stations, many on escalators. One hundred and five occurred while people got on or off trains, 87 occurred on the trains and 62 happened in parking lots.
Four people on the tracks were hit by trains, two of them in suicide attempts. Fifteen people – all but two subway employees – were hurt in train collisions.
Cheryl Johnson, spokeswoman for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, said many of the injuries from 1991-’94 also were escalator-related.
“We have 522 escalators, more than any other system in the world,” Johnson said. “A lot of the injuries come from people doing inappropriate things – sitting, running, going up the wrong way, wearing loose clothing – on the escalators.”
Other injuries resulted from people tripping on the one- to three-inch gap between the platform edge and the train as they were boarding or alighting, Johnson said. Metro does not have signs warning people about this gap, but it does post instructions about how to use the escalators, she said.
To try to prevent escalator accidents, the Washington Metro has installed glide-stop brakes on all its escalators, so they will come to a smoother halt when they stop. “Before it was abrupt, and people would sometimes trip,” Johnson said.
Deaths on and around the subways were much rarer than injuries, and again somewhat predictable based on the sizes of the systems. For instance, the largest system, New York’s MTA- NYCTA, had the most deaths during the five years, at 311, and the second highest death rate.
Sixteen deaths were reported on the Washington system between 1991 and ’95, and one on the Baltimore Metro.
The Baltimore Metro death rate, which takes into account miles traveled by passengers, ranked it in a three-way tie for seventh place with the systems in Washington and San Francisco.
The 1994 death on Baltimore’s tracks was a suicide, as were the majority of the Washington Metro deaths – 13 of the 16, Brown and Johnson said. The other three Washington deaths were of undetermined causes, said Ronald Keele, manager of systems safety for WMATA. “These are people that might have fallen from the platform onto the track bed” and been struck by a train, he said.
Suicide also was the major cause of death on the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s subway in Philadelphia, the system with the highest death rate. Twenty-nine people died on Philadelphia system during those five years, and the majority were suicides, said Robert Allman, SEPTA director of systems safety.
“Can we do anything about it? It’s very difficult to do something about a person who is so desperate and wants to take their own life,” Allman said. People “get kind of depressed, and then they just jump. It happens.”
WMATA’s Johnson agreed that the subway systems can do little to thwart suicides. “There is no practical way to prevent that, unless someone is there, sees them, knows what their intent is, and can actually pull them back from the edge,” she said. But, she added, Metro workers are instructed to watch for unusual behavior and for people standing too close to the platform edge.
Alan Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, said there are other steps transit agencies should take to prevent suicides. He recommends bright lighting, colorful paint or murals and advertisements for crisis prevention centers or suicide hotlines. “We’re talking about human life,” he said. “We should do anything possible to save it.”
Some systems are adopting this philosophy. The Boston system, which reported 15 deaths in the past five years, 10 of them suicides, has identified stations where a high proportion of suicides occur, said Fred Goodine, director of safety. Officials have improved security, installing video cameras at some of the stations and adding 22 police officers in the past five months to the approximately 200-member force, he said.
“The traditional mind set for suicides was, `We’re not responsible, so don’t worry about it,’ ” Goodine said. “We’re trying to take the higher road now and be pro-active.”
Both the Washington and Baltimore Metros also use video cameras in stations to monitor passengers’ behavior. CNS reporters Jennifer McMenamin and Paul T. Rosynsky contributed to this report. -30-