Around 5 pm on Father’s Day 2010, a subway tunnel and train in downtown Chicago, Illinois (IL) filled with smoke. Nineteen passengers, including a 10-year-old boy, needed hospital treatment for mild to severe smoke inhalation and other injuries. Fortunately, no one was killed.

Chicago L map
Preliminary investigations show that one or more railroad ties on the Red Line near the Clark/Division L station caught fire, possibly due to the buildup of summer heat on oil and creosote. The Chicago subway fire comes nearly a year after a fatal collision between DC Metro trains caused by the malfunction of an automatic braking system built into the tracks.

The deaths of nine Metro passengers — and injuries to dozens of others — prompted federal lawmakers to call for $150 million to improve light rail safety in Washington, DC, and elsewhere. The fire in Chicago, where a fire department official conceded that ties bursting into flames was not uncommon, drives home the fact that government officials at all levels, transit agencies and light rail operators need to make passenger and worker safety a top priority.

This real-life lesson holds particular relevance for Norfolk and the other cities of Hampton Roads, as the HRT-operated TIDE is set to start running in 2011. Expansions of the local light rail system are already proposed for Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Newport News.

Commuter trains can help relieve traffic congestion and have a generally positive safety record. When accidents do happen, though, the number of people hurt and killed can be quite large. Constant focus on, and improvement in, light rail safety are musts if the benefits of the transportation option are to be fully realized.