Friday, May 15, 2015

Vermont Rail Safety--Crossings Needs and Positive Train Control

Vermont: No Positive Train Control (PTC),  Lot of Rail/highway Crossings Needing Active Warning Systems

The recent death here in Vermont of a person walking along the tracks hit by the Vermonter Amtrak train and the tragic—technically preventable if the planned investments had been completed---four fatalities and dozens of injuries both point to America’s antiquated rail safety systems.  There are probably about 30 rail/highway crossings along Amtrak routes here which are very dangerous with no active warning or insufficient active warning—many which underwent review team analyses recommending active warning (gates and flashers) or upgrades to gates/flashers from flashers only.  There are literally only a handful of busy rail/highway crossings in the State with sufficient sight distances to obviate the need for active warning.  And “positive train control” (PTC), the system which stops down train speeds or literally stops them when required when engineers make mistakes like the one in Philadelphia—not going to be done according to one rail policy maker here as Vermont’s two passenger trains a day along with a few freight trains does not as of today force PTC installation.  Another safety “compromise”?  Yes, PTC is expensive, about $100,000 a mile.  Still federal highway officials value a life saved at $9.1 million (1999 dollars).   In New York State, for example, every public crossing with a passenger train has active warning so as the Ethan Allen Amtrak trains cruises though several crossings in Rutland, Fair Haven and Castleton without active warning, the train enters New York State where every crossing has at least flashers.  Two recent Vermont injuries at rail/highway crossings along the Amtrak Vermonter route both involved crossings with no active warning system.  Oh, one in four rail-highway crossing injuries is fatal compared to one in 75 car occupant injuries.   

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The City Transportation Cyclist (CTC) Coming to a Busy Street Near Your Neighborhood

The City Transportation Cyclist (CTC)—By Far the Largest Potential  and “Reail” Bicyclist Population

For more than a half century the American cyclist who uses the two-wheeler today to get from one place to another mostly involves  “young adult males” (YAMs) willing to take risks on streets and highways with ordinary unprotected bike lanes and shoulders, or simply biking along busy streets as part of the traffic stream.  Young and old, females generally, and the less skilled stay away from our downtowns and town centers if biking, most not biking at all. Avoiding cycling does correctly recognize American cycling suffering a far higher rage of injury crashes and about triple the fatality rate of, for examples, urban Germany and the Netherlands.

Two major developments—one in North America and the other in bicycling found in Western European nations radically changed a now quickly evolving cycling arena for America.  First there was the renaissance of recreational path development in North America spurred in great part by the new U.S. transportation law in 1991 providing dedicated funds for bicycle and recreational paths and mandating consideration of walking and bicycling facility provision in all federally funded projects.  Side by side with federal legislation were the emergence of local organizations and individuals spearheading bikepaths.  In Vermont the Burlington Bikepath and Stowe Bikepath represent examples of ground up recreation facilities developed without significant benefit of state and federal funds.  These bikepaths drew literally thousands of families and individuals to comfortable and fun bicycling experiences and changed public attitudes about bicycling for the better.  The U.S. “bikepath age” brought a cross-population group of young and old of all skills and abilities to bicycling largely on pathways separated from all the negative aspects, particularly safety, associated with bicycling on busy streets of any kind. 

Second, as the car began overwhelm Western European nations after World War 2 where walk and bike modes often reached 30-40% of all urban trips (in the U.S. today only 11% of urban trips are by bike, about 1%, or on foot 10%.  Driven by increasing walk and bicycle injuries and fatalities Western Europeans invented traffic calming in general and then specific infrastructure investments led by roundabouts and cycle track (protected bike lanes) became the antidote for dealing with walk/bike casualties.  At the same time roundabouts arising from the need for moving traffic in higher volumes and better safety than the now mostly obsolete signal,  brought a similar sizable reduction in vehicles fatalities and serious injuries as well.

Still, cycle track remained a curiosity until this decade in the United States and roundabouts though first introduced to he U.S. in 1990 experienced a rather slow adoption with only about 4,000 in place today compared to a production rate in the 1990s which would equal 7,000 a year in the U.S.  (France has about 35,000 roundabouts today the most of any nation.)

Now, almost suddenly, both roundabout and cycle track technology like the eight-year old iPhone radically expand in the transportation marketplace, changing how we go about providing safe infrastructure for all modes—the roundabout—and for cyclists—cycle track.

At first, cycle track will mostly be installed along busy city and town center streets and open up cycling to the same cross-section of the population now relegated to mostly recreation paths and bikepaths.  Roundabouts at key intersections not only traffic calm but provide a walk/bike serious or fatal injury reductions of about 90%.

So welcome to the new world of what for cyclists can now belong—the “City Transportation Cyclist (CTC) world.”  It is a world of all ages, skills and genders.  It is a world of busy streets with safe cycle track along street sections and roundabouts at key intersections.  CTC gets folks between their home to stores, church, entertainment, library and town hall—all the things they are mostly forced to do by car or by very risky walking/bicycling.   The CTC potential?  Well, Copenhagen likely fails to meet its goal of 50% of all urban trips by bicycle by next year—but will not miss that target by much.  And, yes, even in a small state like Vermont the costs involves tens of millions of dollars from all levels of government—but a lot less than the hundreds of billions devoted to highways since 1916 when the first federal highway program law passed.   The City Transportation Cyclist world, coming to a busy street in your downtown or town center neighborhood.