A pedestrian darts across the tracks to catch a departing train along Main Street downtown.

The accident was the catalyst for a massive effort to boost safety on and around light-rail trains. Over the last year, the Utah Transit Authority, which operates and maintains the state’s rapidly expanding UTA Transit Express system, or TRAX, along with FrontRunner commuter trains and a fleet of more than 650 buses, has plastered a pervasive safety campaign around town.

Bold red and yellow billboards with thick block letters encourage drivers and pedestrians to “look twice,” warning that “another train could be coming from the other direction.” The agency, says UTA spokesman Gerald Carpenter, spent $200,000 on the venture last year and is slated to spend as much in 2012, wrapping the exterior of trains and buses with the signage, placing posters on platforms and sending UTA employees out to stations armed with fliers filled with train safety tips like “never try to outrun a train” and “remember, flashing red lights mean stop.”

“The whole idea is to find new ways to get the message out to catch somebody’s attention,” Carpenter says, noting Salt Lake City and UTA police officers recently supplemented the campaign by issuing warnings in a joint blitz when they saw people being unsafe around TRAX. “Basically, we’re trying to change it up a little bit so people think about safety.”

Since Shariah’s death last summer, news of a pedestrian standing just a little too close to a moving train or a car colliding with TRAX has become almost commonplace. Over the past 12 months, at least 25 TRAX incidents—caused by everything from cars speeding through red lights and crashing through the gates to pedestrians overstepping the yellow, tactile pads on the platform and being sucked under arriving trains—have tainted the UTA’s safety record, propelling it above many other cities with light-rail systems.
In 2011, nine people were hit by TRAX trains. Five were killed (two were ruled suicide), according to the National Transit Database. That’s more than Portland, Phoenix and Denver—which log tens of thousands more passenger miles a year than Salt Lake’s system—combined. Of the UTA’s 20 incidents last year, including collisions with vehicles, 14 people were injured.

“The recent tragic accidents in Salt Lake City are a sad reminder that safety must be everyone’s number one priority,” says Federal Transit Authority Administrator Peter Rogoff. “The UTA must take every step possible to make rail ridership as safe as possible, while area residents must be mindful of all warning signals when trains are approaching. Everyone has a critical role to play.”

Nationally, transit fatalities have increased 21 percent between 2008 and 2011, and light-rail collisions with pedestrians have risen nearly 13 percent. In the Salt Lake Valley, incidents have consistently jumped between 17 and 27 occurrences a year since Trax opened in December 1999. Exceptions include a low of 15 incidents in 2010 and a high of 29 two years earlier.

Now, the system has expanded—and continues to grow—far beyond the initial lines. Ridership on TRAX has skyrocketed, from 490,063 boardings in January 2000 to more than 1.6 million in December 2011. And with the new airport and Draper lines slated to open in 2013 and 2014, ridership numbers are only going to get bigger.

In an effort to decrease the fatality figures, the UTA is working toward securing better national standards and guidelines to ensure safer rail crossings. Federal oversight is minimal (the FTA is prevented by law from implementing and enforcing national safety standards for rail transit systems) though the National Transportation Safety Board has recommended federal oversight for more than 30 years.

“That’s something we recognize as a deficiency not only at UTA but industry wide,” Carpenter says. “There simply hasn’t been enough focus on how to ensure [safety] at crossings, and there’s a lot of things we’ve being doing internally to make sure we do our part.”

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