Despite operating 6 miles of surface tracks, with 37 grade crossings where people, cars and objects mix with trains, Sound Transit is safer than many light-rail systems around the country. Yet there is room to improve.

Seattle-area trains on Sound Transit’s 1 Line were involved in collisions 92 times in 2015-2021, about once per month, based on Federal Transit Administration (FTA) data. There were 21 injuries and deaths, placing Sound Transit 15th of 22 light-rail systems. (The Seattle Times counted FTA data for collisions with pedestrians and vehicles on the tracks, while excluding people aboard trains or at station platforms, transit workers, and certain low-damage crashes.)

Seattle’s most dangerous light-rail stretch — and how to make it safer

By comparison, there were 629 crashes in Houston, where 80 street and driveway crossings breed conflict. Los Angeles Metro reported 151 injuries and deaths, but trains on L.A.’s four routes crashed less per mile traveled than those on Seattle’s single line.

To be sure, the nation’s 531 light-rail crashes in 2019 don’t compare with 6.8 million motor-vehicle crashes reported to police that year, and 36,096 road deaths. Light-rail trains serve a minuscule share of U.S. trips, but collide more per mile than private cars, usually at road crossings.

Sound Transit proposes new design standards that declare, “Future at-grade pedestrian track crossings should be avoided wherever possible.” The 2024 extensions to Federal Way and Lynnwood are being constructed off-road, while Bellevue’s trains will cross three roads east of downtown.

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Here’s what some cities tried:

Los Angeles

The new Crenshaw Line south to the airport doesn’t open until late 2022, but the agency has already agreed to convert a boulevard crossing in nearby Inglewood to an overhead trestle in 2026 for $150 million, to prevent congestion and crashes around new stadiums and the 2028 Olympic Games.

Ten intersections along the Crenshaw Line are equipped with red-light enforcement cameras, commonplace at L.A. Metro.

Portland

Oregon lawmakers in 2019 established a unique Tri-Met Crash Advisory Committee at the prodding of Darla Sturdy, whose 16-year-old son was fatally hit in 2003 by a train as he bicycled in suburban Gresham. She says Oregonians were bamboozled long ago by a “transit-industrial complex” intent on securing public funds.

“They should have an incredible safety record,” Sturdy said. “The reason they don’t isn’t because of the operator, it’s because of the design.”

The committee has focused on multiple-crash locations where Tri-Met can consider slower road speeds and better signals, says chair Scott Kocher. Also, more homeless people are walking from camps onto tracks where Tri-Met installed new fences, but longer-term solutions are needed, Kocher said.

Tri-Met is researching how to identify the most helpful crossing improvements focused on pedestrians, said spokesperson Roberta Altstadt. FTA says it awarded $825,506 though 2025 for the $1.1 million project, featuring new cameras and video analysis to seek “measurable reductions in deaths and injuries at light-rail crossings.”

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Portland’s unique Tillikum Bridge over the Willamette River for transit, walking and bicyclists added a traffic-free mile of corridor in 2015. Tri-Met studied a $4.5 billion downtown tunnel to enhance speed and capacity, compared to slow surface trains downtown.

Houston

Houston Metro was nicknamed the “Wham Bam” train during startup in 2004, and its current 22-mile network averages 90 crashes per year. These original tracks mix with vehicle left-turn lanes, as well as driveways near Texas Medical Center.

To reduce wrecks, Metro has tried blue and red stripes on trains, and signals that give trains a head start before other traffic. Warning lights in the pavement reduced dangerous car turns, but a contractor couldn’t keep them working.

However, the city is still making compromises to avoid reducing car capacity. As recently as 2015, Houston built more “shared lanes” for a new downtown light-rail line.

Pittsburgh

Port Authority light-rail trains rarely collide, on average five times per year.

“The fact our system is relatively slow, and even slower in crossings, certainly plays a part,” said spokesperson Adam Brandolph. Grade-crossing speeds are 10-15 mph, compared with a 30-35 mph cruising speed.

Trains can avoid conflicts in the 118-year-old Mount Washington Tunnel and a new Allegheny River tunnel downtown, but 14 miles cross or share surface streets.

Neighbors know what to expect because trains use trolley corridors nearly a century old, Brandolph said. If two trains bunch together they automatically stop because their old power supply can propel only one.