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Originally published November 27, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 28, 2005 at 7:46 AM

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Monorail trains collide

A sideswipe accident between the two trains on Seattle's monorail Saturday night will likely put the system out of service until next year...

Seattle Times staff reporters

A sideswipe accident between the two trains on Seattle's monorail Saturday night will likely put the system out of service until next year.

The crash at about 7:10 p.m. sent glass flying to the street. It took nearly an hour to evacuate the 84 passengers on board the two trains. Firefighters escorted them individually down fire-truck ladders extended to the trains about 25 feet above the sidewalk.

There were no serious injuries, but two people were taken to the hospital to be checked out, said Helen Fitzpatrick, spokeswoman for Seattle Fire Department.

The two trains scraped against each another, ripping a door off in the process, on the elevated tracks near Fifth Avenue and Olive Way.

In that area, the tracks start to converge as they approach the station at Westlake Center, leaving insufficient space for two trains at once.

The monorail's general manager, Glenn Barney, said the risk of a collision was clear to anybody who looked at the converging tracks there.

One train was apparently just pulling into the Westlake Center station and the other departing toward Seattle Center when the sides of the trains hit. At least one of the drivers waved at the other and a horn was honked just as the accident occurred, witnesses said.

Monorail facts


Opened to the public: March 24, 1962, as part of the Seattle World's Fair.

Construction costs in 1962: $3.5 million. The city bought the line in 1965 for $600,000.

Speed of trains: Up to 50 mph, according to the monorail Web site. The trains cover the 1.2 miles between Seattle Center and Westlake Center in two minutes.

Miles traveled: Nearly 1.8 million miles in the line's 43-year history, according to estimates. The system carries about 2 million passengers a year.

Number of passengers served: On its busiest days, the monorail carries as many as 20,000 or more passengers. A more typical day would see the trains carry well under 10,000 passengers. Each train can carry up to 450 passengers.

Sources: Seattle monorail Web site; The Seattle Times

"We saw sparks as they were hitting, and the glass came down right over us, and we jumped out of the way," said Amy Hutteball, who was walking with two friends beneath the elevated tracks.

"We did a little kind of tap dance to the side," she said.

The amount of damage to the two trains — called the "Red" and "Blue" trains — was not immediately known.

"It happened very fast," said passenger Morris Rosenberg, 46, of Woodinville, who was out for a night on the town with four friends visiting from St. Louis. "You wouldn't see it coming or anything — just, 'Boom!' it happened."

It is the second serious incident involving the monorail, which was built in 1962 for the World's Fair, in less than two years. In May 2004, a fire aboard the Blue Train injured eight passengers out of more than 100 onboard and shut the line down for more than six months.

Barney anticipated the line will close at least until New Year's for an investigation into the cause of the accident and to make repairs. The monorail has no spare trains.

"It's going to be a while before any service," he said.

The original system was built for full service from Seattle Center to a large station just north of Pine Street. But the route was shortened slightly in the late 1980s to end on the upper level of the Westlake Center mall, which was just opening. That redesign led to the tracks converging.

The outer track is close enough to allow automatic ramps to extend from the mall onto the outer train, but it's too close for a pair of trains to be there at the same time.

Saturday night's collision apparently happened at low speed. Trains coming from Seattle Center peak at just over 40 miles per hour, sometimes reaching 50 mph, along Fifth Avenue, then decelerate rounding a curve to the mall.

Usually, only one train plies the route, making 52 round-trips in a typical eight-hour shift. Both trains operate during certain busy times.

Barney said there is a safety protocol to avoid collisions near Westlake Center, but he would not go into detail, pending the investigation.

The most serious monorail accident occurred in 1971, when the braking system on the Red Train failed and it crashed into a girder at the Seattle Center station. Twenty-six people were hurt.

In September, a city official said the one-mile line needed millions of dollars in renovations, while insisting it was safe to ride.

The line is especially popular during the Christmas holidays, carrying several thousand riders a day.

The city had deferred some long-term renovations on the system — which carries up to 2 million people a year — pending proposed construction of a longer replacement line.

Voters this month aborted efforts to build a longer line, rejecting a 10-mile, $1.84 billion route from Interbay to West Seattle.

Cheryl Phillips: 206-464-2411 or cphillips@seattletimes.com; Mike Lindblom 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattleitmes.com

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