Does Regional Transit put safety first, or not?

Riders board a Regional Transit light-rail train at the 16th Street station. After two deaths, RT now has a 20 mph speed limit for arriving trains.
Riders board a Regional Transit light-rail train at the 16th Street station. After two deaths, RT now has a 20 mph speed limit for arriving trains. Sacramento Bee file

You have to wonder, at least a little, about Regional Transit’s commitment to safety after reading Tony Bizjak’s eye-opening report Sunday about its stubborn refusal to slow light-rail trains rolling into stations even after a man was run over.

You also have to wonder whether a woman might still be alive had RT responded promptly, since she was struck nearly 10 months after state regulators told RT to slow down.

After Steven Lofton, 52, was killed by a light-rail train in Sacramento in April 2013, inspectors from the California Public Utilities Commission discovered that trains were coming into stations as fast as 35 mph – well above the 20-mph limit under state regulations.

As Bizjak detailed in his “Public Eye” report, RT had no speed limit for entering stations, leaving it entirely to each driver’s discretion. RT argued that the PUC was misinterpreting the rules. The issue is that at most RT light-rail stations, the tracks are at the same level as waiting platforms. That design, the PUC says, also makes the stations pedestrian malls, bringing in the 20-mph limit. RT says they’re not.

While that bureaucratic argument went on, Yong Sin Day, 56, was killed by a train in Rancho Cordova in February 2014. After a PUC safety official alerted his bosses, the PUC finally ordered RT to slow its trains in January.

Regional Transit CEO Mike Wiley offered this defense Wednesday: The accident investigations concluded that the speed of trains was not a factor in either death. RT’s experience has been that when trains pull in more slowly, pedestrians take more risks crossing the tracks. The bigger safety problem, he said, is inattention by people who are texting or listening to music near stations and tracks.

Despite all that, RT still ultimately decided to play it safe and comply with the 20-mph speed limit. So again, the question is: Why not just do it sooner?

It’s noteworthy that RT hopes that safety at stations will be improved as it replaces its aging fleet of light-rail cars. The new low-floor cars work best with raised platforms, which would put the rail below to discourage and warn people from walking across the tracks, especially as trains arrive.

New stations already have this design. At the new Cosumnes River College station, a fence stops people from crossing to the other set of tracks, except at designated spots. Regional Transit plans to raise platforms at old stations as part of a $250 million, 10-year project it hopes to start in 2017 – if it can get federal and state grants and find other cash to pay for it.

We and business leaders have urged RT to do much better at keeping trains and stations clean and attend to other basics to attract riders, especially as the downtown arena opens next October.

All of that is important, but safety should always come first. Wiley and whoever replaces him after he retires at year’s end should make that absolutely clear instead of quibbling about whether a regulation applies.