Despite rarity of crashes, streetcar operators get extensive safety training

CINCINNATI -- Believe it or not, streetcars crash, too.

It's a phenomenon that's been brought to the city's attention recently, with two collisions in less than a week -- one near The Banks and one in the heart of downtown Cincinnati -- just a few weeks before the region's newest public transit system opens.

The collisions were the first to involve other vehicles since transit officials began testing the streetcar earlier this year.

While it's inevitable for a system that integrates auto traffic with rail vehicles, instances of streetcars colliding with cars are actually quite rare, according to the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority's director of rail services, Paul Grether.

"If you look at state and national statistics, you'll find that these crashes don't occur that often," Grether said.

Data collected by the Federal Transit Administration -- the government agency established in the 1960s to provide assistance to transit systems of all types across the country -- support Grether's claim: In 2015, only 16 major collisions involving streetcars were reported, nationwide. That's not including minor incidents, which, in most cases, means an insurance claim did not need to be filed or there was only minor damage to vehicles involved.

Learning how to drive

Even when a city is breaking in a new streetcar system (the industry term for it is a "burn-in" period), collisions remain fairly uncommon. For example, when Portland, Oregon, opened its streetcar system in 2001, it reported five major collisions in its first year. Tucson, Arizona, which opened its streetcar in 2014, saw just two, the data show.

Kansas City, which just opened a streetcar system in May using the same sort of vehicles as Cincinnati, has experienced similar growing pains as we've seen in recent days: "During the testing phase, and early in our operations, we did come up against those cars parked improperly along the streetcar route as well as drivers that maybe follow too close behind the streetcar or pull in front of a moving streetcar," said Donna Mandelbaum, spokeswoman for the KC Streetcar Authority.

KC Streetcar only saw one collision in its first three months of operations, in which it was determined that the driver of the automobile ran a red light before crashing into the side of the streetcar, Mandelbaum told WCPO.

"The driving public has become more accustomed to driving near and around the KC Streetcar," she said.

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Despite their relative rarity, stories like these get the public asking questions about safety -- especially when it's a transportation mode that's new to the area.

Grether has been tasked over the last year with overseeing the launch of passenger service for the Cincinnati Bell Connector -- the new name for the recently rebranded streetcar loop that connects Over-the-Rhine, Downtown and The Banks -- which is set to begin Sept. 9.

It's a process that he said has numerous moving parts, one of which is to train the streetcar operators hired by the transit authority's partner in overseeing operations and maintenance, Transdev.

"As part of preparing for the streetcar opening to passenger service, we worked with Transdev to establish a standard operating procedure rule book," Grether said. "As part of that process, the state (of Ohio) and the feds reviewed our process for training operators."

Grether said operator training is a two-part process: The first step is for the operator to become "qualified" -- that is, able to drive the streetcar and perform all the duties associated with it. Qualifying also requires 50 hours of on-track time. The second step -- called "certification" -- requires an additional 100 hours of time on the track. Both levels of training include written and in-vehicle tests.

No streetcar operator can carry passengers without completing both stages of training, Grether said. All operators were qualified and most were certified with a bit more than two weeks to go before passenger service begins.

Grether described the approach operators are trained to take while on the tracks as "defensive."

"Streetcar operators are taught to use due diligence while driving to recognize potential hazards up on the track ahead, and to use measures like ringing the bell or early braking before an incident occurs."

In addition to operator training, each vehicle is required to log 500 kilometers -- that's a bit more than 300 miles, or roughly 90 laps around the 3.6-mile loop -- before it's cleared for passenger service.

In case of emergency

In addition to preparing operators, Grether said SORTA has measures in place on how to prepare passengers in the event of a traffic collision or other emergency, and the protocols differ depending on the severity of the incident.

Operators are trained to communicate with central control as well as the passengers immediately following an event that would cause the streetcar to stop in its tracks. During all hours of operation, there is a supervisor and technician on call to respond to any emergencies, Grether said.

"The first priority is safety," he said. "The second is getting the streetcar operational or off the tracks." That's because a stranded streetcar wouldn't just impact the passengers on that vehicle, but could delay the other streetcars in the rotation behind the disabled vehicle, Grether said.

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"If there's a prolonged delay, we'll evacuate the streetcar," he said, emphasizing that it's "critically important" that passengers do not try to self-evacuate the vehicle in the event of a delay. "That's something we'd manage and would be the first responsibility of the responding supervisor."

But once again, this brought Grether back to the rarity of these collisions and the overall safety of the streetcar mode itself.

"The streetcar is an extremely safe mode," he said. "You're in a vehicle that's designed to protect occupants. There's a lot of thought that's gone into these vehicles."

Even still, Grether said passengers should be prepared and alert while on riding the streetcar: "It's important for folks to hold on. The streetcar's been designed that, no matter where you're standing, there's a handhold or stanchion within arm's reach."

For the latest streetcar updates, follow WCPO transportation and development reporter Pat LaFleur on Twitter (@pat_laFleur).

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