The Public Eye

Sacramento light rail forced to slow trains after two pedestrian deaths

Video: Death on light rail - A daughter's pain

Yumee Yu's mother was struck and killed by a light rail train. State inspectors said trains arriving at stations were moving too fast.
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Yumee Yu's mother was struck and killed by a light rail train. State inspectors said trains arriving at stations were moving too fast.

Steven Lofton’s death under the wheels of a light-rail train in Sacramento two years ago prompted state rail safety inspectors to swoop in, radar guns in hand. Their conclusion, issued a few weeks after the incident: Regional Transit trains were entering the stations way too fast.

The California Public Utilities Commission found that trains were rolling in at up to 35 miles per hour, when state regulations limited entry speeds for most of Sacramento’s stations to 20 miles per hour. Sacramento Regional Transit, it turns out, had no speed limit for approaching trains, but left it up to drivers.

It would seem to be a slam dunk change order. The PUC oversees rail safety in California, and RT is one of the agencies that must follow its rules. But RT balked, contending the PUC was misinterpreting the regulations.

The trains kept running at the same speeds.

Ten months later, an RT train entering a Rancho Cordova station hit and killed Yong Sin Day as she walked across the train platform. Alarmed, a PUC safety chief emailed his bosses, urging them to act.

“This is not the first fatality at a station like this and it will not be the last if we continue to allow (RT) to enter these stations at unsafe speeds,” then-PUC transit operations safety supervisor Don Filippi wrote. “This is a huge unresolved safety concern.”

In January, nearly two years after Lofton’s death and 11 months after the Day fatality, the PUC finally ordered RT to slow its trains when entering stations.

Although settled, the long-running tug of war prompts several questions about the agencies: Why would RT refuse for two years to take what would appear to be a simple safety step; and why did it take two deaths for the PUC to require that RT slow down?

State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, a PUC watchdog, labeled the episode shameful. “After one death, that should have been followed up immediately and enforced right away,” Hill said.

Some former PUC employees and critics say the Sacramento saga is an example of the PUC being too deferential to the entities it regulates. That criticism echoes allegations that rocked the PUC after a 2010 gas line explosion killed eight people and leveled 38 homes in San Bruno in the Bay Area. Documents made public after that catastrophe revealed relationships between PUC and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. executives that contributed to a failure by both entities to protect public safety.

Richard Clark, former director of the PUC’s Consumer Protection and Safety Division, said he sees the agency taking steps post-San Bruno to become tougher and more independent. But old habits die hard. Faced with Sacramento’s reluctance, the PUC was slow to assert itself.

“A lack of a safety culture at the PUC continues to be an ongoing issue,” Clark said. He said the agency should have told Sacramento and others, “We are the regulator. You are the regulated entity. You do what we say. We are in charge here.”

The PUC declined to discuss the issue with The Sacramento Bee.

Station or pedestrian mall?

RT has now imposed a speed limit of 20 miles per hour on trains entering its stations. But agency Chief Operating Officer Mark Lonergan said in a lengthy interview that he still doesn’t believe the rule cited by the PUC applies to Sacramento light rail, nor does he believe trains were entering stations at unsafe speeds. They had been arriving at the higher speeds for decades with relatively few incidents, he said.

RT officials “bristled” and dug their heels in, Lonergan said, because they felt the PUC was doing a surprise about-face on them, likely in reaction to the San Bruno disaster. The state previously had never told RT its station entry speeds were too fast. He argued that the PUC did not show that the two deaths were caused by excessive speed.

At the heart of the dispute between RT and the PUC is a difference in how the two agencies view the risks to pedestrians in Sacramento’s unusual, open-style train stations.

In many train and transit stations, such as BART in the Bay Area or the Capitol Corridor regional trains, tracks sit below passenger platforms. For a waiting person to be hit by a train, the person would have to jump, step or fall off the platform. BART officials say their trains enter stations under computer control at 27 mph. Capitol Corridor trains enter the downtown Sacramento station at less than 20 miles per hour, and the Davis station at 30 to 40 miles per hour.

At most of RT’s light-rail stations, tracks are embedded in a concrete walking area that allows passengers to walk freely back and forth over the tracks, even while trains are pulling in. Bright yellow, plastic strips on the pavement designate the danger zone.

They told us they relied on their train operators. We thought that was ridiculous.

Don Filippi, former PUC transit safety supervisor

Station design played a key role in the April 17, 2013, death of Steven Lofton, 52. So did a judgment error.

Lofton, who was apparently homeless, was talking to a woman at the Power Inn station platform a few minutes after noon, according to witnesses. As a downtown-bound train pulled into the station, he ran in front of it to get to the side where the doors would open for boarding.

He tripped and sprawled in the train’s path, and could not get up in time. He was pinned under the train for 25 minutes, and died just after it was lifted off him, according to a coroner’s report. It’s unclear how fast the train entered the station, but a police officer doing interviews at the scene estimated it was moving at 25 miles per hour when it struck Lofton.

Triggered by the fatality, PUC inspectors clocked train entry speeds at several stations, and issued reports concluding that RT trains were consistently violating General Order 143-B, Section 7.05 of the state transit regulations.

That section states: “Speed permitted on pedestrian malls: Maximum light rail vehicle speed permitted on a promenade, pedestrian walk, concourse, mall, or plaza, which is closed to motor vehicles but where pedestrian movement across the tracks is authorized, is twenty (20) miles per hour unless otherwise restricted.”

The PUC team determined that the design of most RT stations makes them pedestrian malls, promenades or plazas. Filippi, the PUC transit safety supervisor, said it was the first time his agency had really focused on Sacramento’s station designs and how that related to train entry speeds.

“It wasn’t until after this fatality that we realized Sac RT had no requirement,” Filippi said. “They had nothing. They told us they relied on their train operators. We thought that was ridiculous.”

RT fired back in a letter, arguing that its stations are just stations, not pedestrian malls, and that PUC should remove references to speed violations from its reports.

The Sacramento Bee recently contacted an outside attorney, Steven Weissman, a lecturer at the UC Berkeley School of Law and former PUC administrative law judge, for an assessment of the “pedestrian mall” regulation. On cursory review, Weissman said the PUC interpretation “appears to be reasonable.”

Faced with RT’s reluctance, state rail safety manager Daren Gilbert sent RT a letter saying the PUC “will be discussing this finding with RT.” There is no record that the PUC initiated any discussions or took further action in the following months, however, based on documents obtained from the PUC and RT via the state Public Records Act.

‘Unresolved safety concern’

Ten months after Lofton’s death, on a rainy February day, Yong Sin Day, 56, was killed when she walked in front of an arriving train in the Cordova Town Center station just after 5:30 p.m.

Unlike Lofton, Day appeared not to notice the train, a video of the incident suggests. Day, who worked nearby at a grocery, was crossing the platform with an umbrella in one hand and a plastic grocery sack in the other. The video shows she crossed at the closest edge to the oncoming train. It is unclear how fast that train was going, but a PUC staffer later noted in an email that the train operator at one point estimated he entered the station at “35 or so.”

Day’s daughter, Yumee Yu, who was 20 at the time, said her mother was about to take a train home in the opposite direction. Yu since has sued RT, contending the train was going too fast for conditions.

“They just brushed her life off like it was nothing,” Yu said. “There were no changes made.”

Day’s death appears to have triggered a renewed push among PUC inspectors to get agency higher-ups to order RT to slow its trains. Safety official Filippi sent a memo to Paul King, deputy director of the Office of Rail Safety, the day after the fatality. He warned of the potential for more deaths.

“We tried to resolve this issue prior to another fatality, however, we failed,” Filippi wrote. “Please help us resolve this (RT) deficiency, this is a huge unresolved safety concern.”

Contacted recently by The Bee, Filippi said he believes train speeds played a role in the two deaths. He said he left the PUC not long after the second death because he was frustrated by the agency’s lack of forcefulness, including its inability at the time to resolve the RT matter.

They just brushed her life off like it was nothing. There were no changes made.

Yumee Yu, whose mother, Yong Sin Day, was killed by a light-rail train

Two weeks after Day’s death, King informed RT in a letter “it is PUC’s intention to immediately enforce” the speed limit. RT again countered, citing a lack of evidence that train entry speeds had caused the deaths, and arguing that slowing trains to 20 miles per hour might actually encourage more pedestrians to walk in front of them.

RT also argued that slower train service could cost the agency an extra $200,000 a year for an additional train run and operators to compensate for slower run times.

Lonergan said in an interview that RT traditionally left station entry speeds up to train operators, and that speeds of 30 to 35 miles per hour have proven efficient and generally safe.

Data supplied by RT show that 30 people on foot or bike were hit by trains in stations over the last 10 years. One person in a wheelchair rolled into a train. Two of those incidents were fatalities, the ones involving Lofton and Day. RT officials did not provide The Bee with detailed incident reports, citing an “official information privilege” exemption from the state Public Records Act.

They noted that trains enter stations more than 2 million times annually, typically without incident.

Faced with revived pressure from the PUC after Day’s death, Lonergan suggested speed tests be conducted. “We are not opposed to establishing a station entry speed provided we are allowed the flexibility to select a speed that is safe, meets our operational requirements, and that we are not bound by the definition of a pedestrian mall,” Lonergan wrote.

After brief discussions, four months passed with no word from the PUC, according to Lonergan. He wrote again, asking for a meeting with commission staff. Meetings finally took place in December of last year.

In January, the PUC’s top rail safety official at that time, Denise Tyrrell, wrote a letter to RT saying the PUC remains “steadfast in our interpretation” of the state rule and giving RT 30 days to comply.

The following day, RT ordered its train operators to slow down. Trains now must be at 20 mph or slower when the train nose reaches the front edge of the station platform.

Resolution of the matter came just a few weeks after PUC commissioners approved a citation program allowing safety managers to fine transit agencies thousands of dollars a day for failure to comply with safety orders. Filippi, the former PUC transit operations safety supervisor, said that citation program was prompted in good part by the troubles with RT.

RT was the first transit agency in the state to be fined under the program earlier this year, $10,000 for a separate incident involving a runaway train. RT has challenged the citation. An administrative law judge’s ruling is pending.

The newly lowered speeds have turned out to have had a negligible effect on train schedules, Lonergan said.

It’s difficult to know what effect the slower speeds have had on accidents in the stations, as those represent a small portion of total incidents in the RT system. Federal data show the transit district is on track in 2015 for the lowest number of collisions, deaths and injuries systemwide in half a dozen years. According to RT, there was only one incident in a station involving a train and pedestrian as of early September.

Notably, RT’s controversial station design is on the way out. Its new stations, such as the ones in Folsom and at Cosumnes River College, are built more traditionally, with rails 8 inches below platform level on a bed of rock, a design that discourages people from walking across the tracks. At the college, RT installed a fence that prohibits pedestrians from crossing one set of tracks to get to the other set, except in designated spots at each end of the station.

RT officials say the design change is not related to safety, but will allow RT to switch in coming years to new low-floor train cars. Eventually, the old open-style stations, including the two where the fatalities occurred, will be redone.

Lonergan said at that point, RT may have a decision to make. “If we modify all our stations, technically, we can go back to a higher speed,” he said.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

Who was Steven Lofton?

Steven Lofton, 52, had 7 cents, a cellphone with a few numbers and a key in his jean pockets on the day in April 2013 that he tripped in front of a train at the Power Inn station. Beyond that and a few other fragments of information, Sacramento officials say they know little about Lofton.

Lofton appeared to have been homeless, they said. Investigators found a state identification card in his wallet that listed a county homeless department building as his address. It likely was a place for him to pick up mail. They found a friend’s number in Lofton’s cellphone, but got no response, and later discovered that friend was deceased.

Who was Yong Sin Day?

Yong Sin Day moved here from South Korea in her mid-20s to marry an American, according to her daughter, Yumee Yu. That relationship did not last. Day, 56, worked for years at a local hospital, but lost that job. She recently had gotten a job as a cashier at a Korean grocery in Rancho Cordova, and lived in an apartment with a friend.

“She was nice,” Yu said of her mother. She liked to play bingo and draw flowers, swans and anime figures. “She liked to serve people. She would bring food every time she visited. She treated my roommates like they were her kids.”

Yu, now 21, was Day’s only child. Day left Yu a phone message the day she was hit by the train. Yu still has it on her phone. “She was telling me she was on her break at work. She said it was really windy and rainy, and for me to be careful when I ride my bike (to work). She said it breaks her heart that I ride my bike.”

Yu got another call from her mother’s phone a little later. It was a police officer. He told her to come to the light-rail station. “He wouldn’t tell me what was wrong. I went there right away. That is when he told me that she passed. They wouldn’t let me see her body.”

Yu since has moved to the Bay Area, she said, to get a fresh start.

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