Regardless of what Norfolk residents and others living and working in Hampton Roads think of the new mass transit option, light rail has come to the southeast corner of Virginia (VA) and will begin shuttling passengers between Waterside and the intersection of Newtown Road and Virginia Beach Boulevard in late winter or early spring 2011. Expansion of the commuter rail line that the local transit agency HRT has dubbed The Tide into Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Portsmouth seems likely over the coming decade.

And with light rail come safety concerns. Even two- or three-car commuter trains on short lines — the first leg of The Tide measures just 7.4 miles — weigh as much as 50 tons and reach speeds of 20-25 mph. The trains can do severe damage to cars, kill pedestrians and wipeout property when accidents occur. That’s “when,” not “if.”

Last summer, nine passengers lost their lives and dozens of people suffered injuries when two DC Metro trains crashed in to each other in the Maryland (MD) suburbs. Houston’s Metro saw 33 collisions between cars and light rail trains in the first few months of street testing and full operation in 2003 and 2004. On September 27, 2010, Metra in Chicago announced a $1.45 settlement with a passenger who broke her leg when a train ran off the rails.

Recognizing the need, HRT has created separate safety campaigns and messages for adults, teens and young children (shown in the video below). The principle pieces of advice in each campaign are

  • Stay Alert, Don’t Get Hurt
  • Anytime is Train Time
  • Forget Shortcuts
  • Tracks Are for Trains
  • Everyone Should Know the Signs and Signals
  • Safety Starts With You

Discussing Tide safety efforts with the Inside Business, HRT spokesman Tom Holden said, “We believe that a public education campaign will be effective because we know that they work. … We don’t want people walking on the tracks. Tracks are for trains. We haven’t seen them on the tracks yet, and I think it will be clear that a 100,000-pound object rolling down the track is going to get your attention.”

The focus on pedestrian safety is particularly needed because much of the initial Tide travel and ridership will occur in the densely built-up area of downtown Norfolk where people are as likely be on foot as in cars or trucks. Likewise, HRT is doing well to get a head start on educating people about safely sharing the road with light rail.