In early morning darkness on Dec. 20, a man died on the MAX tracks in Hillsboro near Northwest Cornelius Pass Road. It was the 41st death in the system's history. It might seem easy to overlook, but it fits in perfectly with TriMet's history of collision deaths.
A review of these deaths shows most happen at a few highly unsafe locations. Thirty-seven percent of all fatalities happened at just five places where more than one death has occurred. Two locations — Gresham City Hall and the crossing of Southwest Baseline Road in Beaverton — are responsible for a fifth of all deaths.
The east-west route shared by Blue and Red Line trains, where the most recent death happened, is the most dangerous segment, by far. It's responsible for 90 percent of all nonpassenger fatalities.
Having spent a lot of time helping a wheelchair-bound friend navigate MAX and hearing his stories about close calls, I started to pay more attention to pedestrian deaths.
The more I read about them in media accounts, the more similarities emerged. That led me to request records from TriMet about deaths from train collisions with people.
An inkling of suspicion turned into a three-month investigation, as my research revealed layer after layer of dangers underlying fatal crashes with pedestrians, and startling trends of similar problems nationwide. I quickly learned the public has a false sense of security and a lack of appropriate caution around MAX tracks.
Fatalities have quadrupled since the system's early years, and efforts to improve safety are not bearing fruit. Patterns indicate simple operational and design changes could reduce them by two-thirds. Nothing indicates train operators play a role in accident trends.
While we tend to think Portland's roads are unsafe compared to MAX, quite the opposite is true. The risk of death by collision per vehicle-mile for a pedestrian or cyclist on MAX tracks is nearly 300 times higher than it is on a roadway around cars and trucks.
TriMet officials haven't done enough to inform the public of how dangerous their tracks are. This safety problem is not limited to MAX; it is a nationwide one. Those who depend on the system the most, including the elderly, disabled and students, unfortunately, are in the most danger.
While transit officials are proud of MAX, its safety record is nothing to brag about. Out of 24 systems in U.S. cities with more than 5 million train-miles from 2002 through 2017, MAX has a fatality rate that's in the middle of the pack, ranking 11th in terms of safety. Pittsburgh's system has a fatality rate that's one-third that of ours. We can do better.
An inexpensive and highly effective solution is to have trains come to a stop before pedestrian crossings next to stations, then enter the station at a crawl. This one change would eliminate all deaths at stations where people cross the tracks, a 30 percent reduction.
At places with multiple fatalities away from stations, tracks could be moved underground or realigned. Other changes such as adding crossing gates, speed reduction and simplifying intersections near stations also can make the system safer.
We shouldn't call these deaths accidents; they're a failure of priorities. Before spending $2.7 billion on the Barbur Boulevard MAX extension, we should improve safety on the Blue Line route, which carries 73 percent of system traffic.
There's no excuse not to when we already know how to reduce deaths. By the time the new line is completed in 2027, 18 more people likely will be dead if nothing is done. That's an unacceptable price to pay.