Riders wait to cross Martin Luther King Jr. Way South near the Columbia City Link light rail station.

A Light Rail Train Was Bearing Down on Them — They Had No Idea.

by Lizz Giordano

As Steven Wayne and Emoke Rock crossed the light rail tracks near the Columbia City Station last summer, they were unaware a light rail train was barreling toward them about to hit and kill the couple, according to a recently completed investigation of the July 2 collision.

“At no point does either pedestrian make any movement to get out of the path of the train or acknowledge its presence,” concludes the “Final Accident Report” written by King County Metro Transit. The bus agency is contracted by the light rail agency to operate the trains. 

The report is sparking renewed discussions about pedestrian safety along the light rail corridor, a critical conversation for Rainier Valley residents. 

On average, nearly once a year someone is killed in a collision with a light rail train with most of the fatalities happening in the Rainier Valley. Of the 10 people who have died since the line opened in 2009, nearly all — nine of them — were on foot at the time of the crash. And most, 8 of 10, of the fatalities occurred along the line running through the Rainier Valley, with the rest taking place in SoDo. 

In these two areas — unlike other places where the track runs below ground or above the road — the light rail operates at grade. The SoDo corridor is lined on one side by the busway. Trains cross a few streets through that one-mile section. 

In the Rainier Valley, trains mix with cars, pedestrians, and bikers between the Mount Baker Station and the city’s southern limits, running 4.5 miles along Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, passing through dozens of intersections. 

Building the track at grade created all sorts of safety issues, said Seattle Councilmember Tammy Morales, who represents the South End of the city. 

“We have way too many fatalities,” she said. “The priority was moving people through the stations, without a lot of consideration on the impact to the communities surrounding the stations.”

Wayne and Rock are not the only people to fail to see an approaching train, according to other “accident reports.” Others appear to notice the train after it was too late to avoid a collision. 

“I just did not see or hear the train!” A report recorded a 13 year-old saying after she was involved in a crash as she crossed the tracks at the Othello Station. She also stated she wasn’t looking for trains or the pedestrian signal, the report noted. 

The hypothesis, said Molly Hughes, WSDOT’s Public Transportation safety administrator, is that safety measures originally put in place along the MLK corridor were adequate at the time the line was built but may no longer be enough for the current volumes of trains, people, and vehicles that pass through the area. 

Unlike the SoDo section, there are no pedestrian gates and crossing arms for vehicles in the Rainier Valley corridor. Sound Transit considered gates for the Rainier Valley section, but they were deemed infeasible when the line was built. 

“While they were considered for the Rainier Valley, they were rejected due to the amount of space and additional property acquisitions that they would require, as well as concerns about the volume and frequency of noise in residential and commercial areas,” said John Gallagher, a spokesperson for Sound Transit. “Pedestrian gates may be more feasible, but we are continuing to look at the effectiveness of these gates.”

Sound Transit continues to conduct safety studies along the corridor. In 2017, the agency noticed an upward trend of near misses with pedestrians at several intersections in SoDo and the Rainier Valley. From that, more signs and pavement markers are being added by the agency. 

After the July collison, Sound Transit launched another study, this time analyzing crash data, according to Gallagher.

In the “Final Accident Report,” Metro recommends Sound Transit explore additional safety measures. 

When asked if that included gates, Jeff Switzer, a spokesperson for Metro, said that could “include physical or operational changes along the alignment. Those decisions are Sound Transit’s to consider.”

He declined to answer further. 

Metro also advises the light rail agency to require the use of horns at all grade crossings in the Rainier Valley. “[Light rail operators] are disinclined to use horns as standard practice along MLK corridor,” the report said. 

There are no regulatory requirements for operators to sound horns at grade crossings, according to Gallagher. “Operators have the authority to use the horn if they feel the situation justifies the use of a horn, no matter the location,” he said.

The operator did sound the train’s bells required by policy before the July collision, according to the report.

Moments before the collision that killed Wayne and Rock, a northbound train sat at the Columbia City Station as a southbound one approached. The video camera mounted on the approaching train captured a figure in white dart across the track followed by the couple, the report points out.

“As usual I sounded the bells before entering the Alaska cross street,” wrote the driver, who had permission to proceed through the intersection, in his collision report. “ The female turned away from the crossing. I continued sounding the bells as I crossed and at the moment I passed the 2 they stepped in front of my train. I applied max brake.”

Lizz Giordano is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Seattle’s Rainier Valley focusing on transit and housing. She can be reached on Twitter @lizzgior, and more of her work can be found on her website.

📸 Featured Image: Pedestrians wait to cross the tracks at the Columbia City Station as a light rail train passes by. (Photo: Lizz Giordano)

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