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Monday, November 16, 2009

Link train derails; traditional media foolishly rush to make a big deal about it

I wasn't going to say anything about the Link light rail train that derailed earlier today, but I feel compelled to after seeing the Seattle Times put the news front and center at the top of their website earlier this afternoon.

There really isn't much more to the story than what I just wrote in the first few words of that paragraph above. An empty train was heading back into the SoDo maintenance base earlier today. It came off the tracks, smashed up a little guardrail, and was slightly scratched up. The operator was not injured.

This minor incident - not unlike a fender bender or a bus breakdown - was promptly made a top headline by the Seattle Times and KING5, even though it's not a big deal. No one was hurt, there wasn't that much damage, and the system was not forced to shut down (although service has been delayed). Sound Transit is still trying to figure out how to get the train down off the aerial tracks and back into the maintenance yard, but this incident is hardly a top story.

No transportation system is flawless. It's predictable but sad but there are glass half-empty people leaving comments on the Times' site that this incident demonstrates why we shouldn't have built light rail. What nonsense. By that logic, we shouldn't have any roads at all because people die in traffic collisions every day. The automobile is about the least safest means of transportation that there is. Look at the number of injuries and fatalities from auto collisions.

The National Transportation Safety Board notes that over ninety percent of all transportation-related deaths occur on the highways (PDF); in 2007, 41,059 people were killed and 2.49 million people injured in auto crashes.
No other mode of transportation approaches highway in terms of the magnitude of the safety challenge - waterborne transportation, the next most dangerous mode of transport in terms of deaths per annum - in 2007 accounted for a total of 769 deaths in the United States, less than 2 percent of the number of fatalities in the highway mode. An average of about 112 people died each day in motor vehicle crashes in 2007, meaning that a person died in a crash every 13 minutes.

The economic cost alone of motor vehicle crashes was more than $230 billion in 2000, which averaged out to a cost of about $820 for every person then living in the United States.
The number of catastrophic rail incidents, in contrast, is so small that the NTSB's annual report actually goes through each one they investigated and provides pictures. There isn't enough room in their annual report to talk about all of the car crashes where people died, of course, let alone the non-fatal crashes.

So the train is actually a pretty safe place to be.

The context I just offered is missing from both the Times story and KING5's report. That's because such context doesn't justify overplaying the derailment, which is what they're doing. It's easier and cheaper to focus on the trivial. And in the case of the Times, not having a print rival to compete with gives them less incentive to do as much serious and investigative reporting as possible.

Unfortunately, things seem bound to get worse before they get any better.


Blogger Daniel Kirkdorffer said...

In fairness, when a train jumps the tracks on other systems (let's say the London Underground) and causes a service disruption it also gets media local coverage.

I don't think the Seattle Times overplayed this at all.

Yes, these things happen occasionally, and the safety record of rail systems is relatively high, but what's probably more important is to understand the cause of each occurrence and try to fix them, rather than bemoan the fact it may receive negative media coverage.

If this had happened with people on board, or at higher speed and with another train along side, the results could have been worse.

This is a new system and there are bound to be imperfections in the switches or rails - let's not kid ourselves about that. That's just reality.

November 17, 2009 7:35 AM  
Blogger Andrew said...

They overplayed it, Dan. Not saying it shouldn't be mentioned at all, but it didn't deserve top billing. Nobody was hurt and service was not halted.

I was on a Route 11 Metro bus yesterday that broke down on Capitol Hill, causing a backup of buses and cars behind. Had to wait a while until another 11 came along. That inconvenience was about the same as the inconvenience that Link riders had to deal with due to the derailment. But of course the Times and KING5 didn't make it their top headline because it didn't deserve to be.

The Times has just turned a power outage in the Rainier Valley into another negative non-story about light rail, even though Link's propulsion system has not been affected by the outage. Trains pausing at intersections in darkened neighborhoods just like cars and buses... Stop the presses!

November 18, 2009 10:00 PM  

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