Motorists and Light Rail Struggle to Share the Road

City motorists need to remember that streets aren't just for cars anymore.

When Houston began building its first light rail system several years ago, officials did everything they could to educate the city’s car-loving residents about the future rail line. Despite equipping the new trains with strobe lights, horns, bells and whistles, drivers were hitting the rail cars before the line even officially opened on Jan. 1, 2004. By 2006, there had been 62 collisions between cars and trains, and the situation just kept getting worse. People began calling Houston’s light rail the “Wham Bam Tram.”

Now, it looks like another car-friendly city is experiencing a crash course in light rail. Shortly after a 20-mile system opened in Phoenix on Dec. 27, 2008, motorists began colliding with the trains. A year later, there had been 52 collisions, or an average of one per week.

It’s not a rail problem; it’s a driver problem. The accidents stem from drivers running red lights, ignoring signals and making right turns without checking to see if a train is on the tracks beside them. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that our car-dependent culture doesn’t quite know what to make of light rail systems, which run on surface-level tracks that often share the same congested, downtown roads as cars.

Despite the problems that Houston, Phoenix and other new light rail cities have had, they might as well start learning to coexist with trains. Already, there are 33 light rail systems in the country (compared to just 15 subway systems), according to the American Public Transportation Association. And more tracks are on the way: 144 miles of light rail track are either under construction or in design, and another 560 miles of track is expected to be laid in the future.

Fortunately, serious injuries and deaths have been few when car meets light rail, but transit agencies still want to avoid escalating repair costs. In Honolulu, which is planning its first light rail system, the issue of how cars and trains will share roads has literally lifted transit plans off the ground. The city is investigating whether to elevate its trains above ground to avoid collisions and traffic congestion issues.

Meanwhile, city motorists need to remember that streets aren’t just for cars anymore. Perhaps they’ll take notice, and begin riding the rails.

Tina Trenkner is the Deputy Editor for She edits the Technology and Health newsletters.