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Originally published Friday, August 6, 2010 at 9:50 PM

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Response to light-rail accidents examined

When he heard the crash, Tony Ngoc Pham ran from his auto-body shop across the road. He climbed a pedestrian handrail and braced his left foot inside the bed of a white pickup, which was wedged against a light-rail train Tuesday.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

When he heard the crash, Tony Ngoc Pham ran from his auto-body shop across the road.

He climbed a pedestrian handrail and braced his left foot inside the bed of a white pickup, which was wedged against a light-rail train Tuesday. Ngoc bear-hugged one of the driver's legs, to help him down.

"It was easy — I was in the service a long time ago. Vietnam War," he said.

The government response dragged on much longer — a full three hours to extricate the munched pickup and restart the Link light-rail trains through South Seattle.

It was the worst incident so far on the year-old line in terms of delaying passengers, and points to ongoing issues with how Sound Transit reacts to delays. When a train derailed in November, for example, service restarted in about an hour, but riders at nearby stations said they weren't told what was happening.

Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl said the agency failed to give timely information to people using its trains.

"We did not have a good customer response. I'm not proud of it," she said before Thursday's transit-board meeting. "It was not a good day for us."

She publicly apologized moments later and alerted board members to expect complaints.

Sound Transit and other agencies are reviewing the incident, which delayed passengers heading to downtown and the airport.

Officials say the three-hour delay was necessary — and they don't question the pace of the Seattle Fire Department tactical team, which dislodged the truck — because of the extremely awkward placements of the vehicles.

"That was the best that could be done, under the circumstances. It's not something we're happy about," Deputy Chief Executive Ron Tober said Friday, after the second of three briefings.

With more than 40 years of transit experience, he couldn't ever recall a minor-injury accident taking so long to clear. "We're lucky we did not have a serious injury or fatality on this, given the damage that was done to the truck, done to the rail vehicle."

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Why it took so long

Transit police report the pickup driver, from Puyallup, turned left illegally at Martin Luther King Jr. Way South and South Dawson Street, four blocks south of the Columbia City Station, when the train struck and spun the pickup 180 degrees. Normally, after an accident, trains restart about 30 to 40 minutes later, said spokesman Bruce Gray. But in this case, the truck was wedged between the train and a steel pedestrian-safety railing in the median of MLK Way. And part of the truck was under the train.

Railings had to be severed. Another obstacle was the overhead power wire, which required extra caution, managers said.

Metro sent extra vehicles to pick up stranded riders, about a half-hour after the crash, said Jim Jacobson, deputy general manager of Metro.

But certain details, such as the length of delays, didn't make it to passengers, Gray said.

Better communications

The delays were especially embarrassing because dozens of riders were taking Link trains into Seattle for a transit conference.

William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association, was caught in the backup, at Othello Station. Millar said a friend called him from another train; they found a No. 8 Metro bus, and when that was blocked, finished their trip on a No. 7 bus. Millar said he discussed the incident with Earl and Kevin Desmond, King County Metro Transit's general manager.

Ironically, the Seattle agencies had just started training a new employee Monday, to focus solely on customer updates.

This person will be a "bridge" between the Link train-control center and the bus-control center, each operated by Metro in the same building in the Sodo neighborhood, said Gray.

The job includes writing customized messages for the electronic signs at stations; changing the announcements on public-address speakers; and feeding updates by radio to bus and train operators.

Messages at stations have tended to be general and the public-address systems typically use automated messages, not specific live updates.

The new communications job was created largely to improve travel through the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, shared by buses and trains, where rush-hour congestion or electronic glitches cause occasional delays.

DOT's solutions

A decade ago, as traffic congestion became more severe, managers with the Washington State Department of Transportation worried about how to clear highway lanes faster after collisions.

Since then, tow trucks have been stationed along bottlenecks, response crews were offered incentives to move briskly, and DOT rewrote its joint-incident protocols with police agencies, said former Secretary Doug MacDonald.

In the first quarter this year, DOT cleared 11,644 incidents in an average time of 12 minutes and dropping, according to its Gray Notebook performance report. Such figures aren't comparable to transit lines, but they do illustrate a core mission within the highway department.

Tober said Tuesday's wreck doesn't require a major reaction, such as specialized heavy equipment and crews.

But he did suggest some improvements, such as sending a Metro supervisor to incident sites to help Link users find a bus.

And perhaps a temporary downtown-to-airport express bus should be available during rail shutdowns, he said. Metro just eliminated its full-time airport express bus, No. 194, in February, after Link began airport service.

The $2.6 billion train line opened last year from downtown to Tukwila, and was extended to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in December. It served 23,400 riders per weekday in June.

Tuesday's was only the ninth train-vehicle crash on the line, none causing major injuries — a much better result than first predicted, considering there are 5 miles of track at surface.

"Without a lot of accidents, you probably don't have a lot of practice with what you do — it's probably a good thing," Earl said.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

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