Logo: University of Southern California

Designing a Safe Light Rail Crossing

ISE student will study safety issues involved in the design of Farmdale Avenue railway crossing
Diane Ainsworth
June 20, 2008 — Every day at 3:08 p.m., Dorsey High School’s ear-piercing bell rings, sending hundreds of teenagers into the heavily trafficked intersection of Farmdale Avenue and Exposition Boulevard.  They run, skateboard and bike at breakneck speed across an intersection that has no traffic signal, dodging bumper-to-bumper traffic to reach the opposite side of Exposition Boulevard.
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Dorsey High School students spill out onto a busy intersection at Farmdale and Exposition Boulevard after school.
That intersection has become one of the Exposition Light Rail’s more controversial sites and the location of engineering student Robert “BJ” Takushi’s summer safety study.  Several times a week, he plants himself on the northeast side of Exposition Boulevard and Farmdale, kitty-corner to Dorsey High School, and sets up his video recorder on a tripod to document the sea of school children spilling out after school. For the next two months, he will be videotaping pedestrians and traffic congestion in a research project to shed more light on the safety issues involved in a street-level rail crossing at Farmdale.

“The pedestrian and driver safety impact of the Exposition Light Rail (Expo Line) project is of particular importance, due to its impact on sensitive and vulnerable populations, such as school children and elderly pedestrians,” he explained in his research proposal.  “At-grade rail crossings, as shown by national accident data, pose a high risk for pedestrians and motorists.  Human factors and safety considerations in the design of highway-rail crossings play a vital role in reducing those risks significantly.”
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Robert "BJ" Takushi on campus.

Phase 1 of the new $686-million Exposition Light Rail Transit Line will be 8.6 miles long, connecting downtown Los Angeles to Culver City. It will run along the old Exposition railroad right-of-way and will include the construction of nine new train stations and numerous railway crossings. Phase 2 of the light rail will one day take riders all the way to Santa Monica Pier.

Most of the mid-city (Phase 1) alignment will operate at-grade, running about 50 feet away from Dorsey High. The light rail will also pass in close proximity to Foshay Learning Center, a K-12 Los Angeles Unified School District school, although not as close as it will to Dorsey High. Scheduled to open in the summer of 2010, the new transit line is expected to transport many students to-and-from school, as well as about 27,000 commuters by 2020.

For more than a year now, residents near Dorsey High School have been involved in public debate over the proposed street-level crossing at Farmdale and Exposition Boulevard. Instead of the proposed at-grade crossing, residents want a "grade-separated" crossing to keep children away from the tracks. A grade-separated crossing can include a pedestrian overpass or underpass, or include a wide trench to separate the railway tracks from the pedestrian walkways and loading areas. 

Not surprisingly, all of the alternatives to a streert-level crossway would cost more money and take a longer time to build, Takushi said.  An above-ground crossing, for instance, would cost roughly $28 million more to build; a below-ground crossing would cost more like $100 million more.  On top of that, it would cost approximately $1 million more per month if the construction went over schedule.    

“The problem is that at-grade crossings are the most accident-prone types of railway crossings,” Takushi said, “because people can get so close to the trains and traffic is controlled only by signals or gates.”
Artist's rendering of the at-grade Farmdale railway station.  --Courtesy of MTA.

Residents near other crossways along the new Expo Light Rail are similarly embroiled in debates with the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), the Expo Construction Authority (ECA) and the city over the design of crossways at their respective intersections. Meanwhile,  MTA, ECA and the city are staging educational forums at schools and public auditoriums to educate everyone — from the youngest to the oldest rail users — about safety issues. That outreach effort hasn't quelled fears yet that the new light rail may become “another Blue Line” at Farmdale, but with time, MTA and city officials hope those fears will subside.

Takushi said it was clear that a more indepth analysis of the safety risks posed by an at-grade crossing at Farmdale versus a grade-separated crossing was warranted before the issue could be resolved.  So he sought the help of his faculty adviser, Professor Najmedin Meshkati, to win a grant and undertake the study.   

Meshkati, who holds joint faculty appointments in the Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering and the Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is an expert on the safety, human factors and risk management of complex, large-scale technological systems, and one of the very few scholars in the U.S. conducting research on grade crossing safety.  His latest research effort with several professors and students from USC and Cal State University, Long Beach, culminated in "A Study of the Exposition Light Rail's Safety for Pedestrians and Drivers" (May 2007), and was supported by a grant from METRANS. Under Meshkati's guidance, Takushi drafted a proposal, then got the funding through a Rose Hills Foundation grant to continue the work.

In June, Takushi began data collection, making field observations three times a week at the corner opposite Dorsey High, just as school let out.  Once he gets a handle on the after-school swarm of cars and students, he will begin working on an analysis of pedestrian and motorist travel patterns at the intersection.  All of this will be combined into a report that will be submitted to the MTA, the community and Dorsey High School personnel.
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Entrance to Dorsey High School on Farmdale Avenue.

“BJ's work will shed new light on some of the human factors issues that need to be addressed at this intersection, because it will become one of the busiest intersections along the new Exposition Light Rail Transit Line,” Meshkati said. “His research is very timely and will become a very significant part of the decision-making process for all of the stakeholders as we move forward with this transit system.”   

Takushi hopes his research can be applied universally to railway systems all over the country and the world. 

“It’s a challenging issue,” he said, “but there are a lot of common threads in each specific railway crossing," he said. "And if that's the case, I think this study could be useful in the design and operation of any light rail system in the country.”