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Originally published August 13, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 13, 2008 at 9:53 AM

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Sound Transit to run test trains through Rainier Valley

Keep off the tracks! Sound Transit will begin testing a light-rail train in Seattle's Rainier Valley on Thursday.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

Light-rail safety 101

SOME TIPS to stay safe:

Look for trains: Light-rail trains are quiet, so look both ways before walking near or across tracks.

Left turns: Cars may turn left only on a green left arrow. There are no crossing gates, only signals.

Stand back: Trains overhang the tracks by about 3 feet, so keep back.

Don't gamble: Trains move faster than they appear, and take longer to stop than a car.

Stalled cars: If your car stalls on the tracks, get out immediately.

No horseplay: Don't set objects on the rail, because the heavy trains can send them shooting at people.

Bicycles: Cross tracks at a perpendicular angle, so tires won't get caught in rail grooves.

Source: Sound Transit

Sound Transit will begin testing a light-rail train in Rainier Valley on Thursday, adding a new kind of traffic to busy Martin Luther King Jr. Way South.

The tracks pass through 18 intersections and 10 pedestrian signals, plus three stations in the median. Trains will run as often as every six minutes in each direction, at a top speed of 35 mph. Although engineers have designed state-of-the-art signals and walkways, the sheer volume of activity makes this a hazardous five miles.

To spread the safety message, Sound Transit has bought billboard space, talked with school and community groups, and hung fluorescent warning signs at crossings. Safety brochures were produced in 12 languages, in one of the nation's most diverse neighborhoods.

At midmorning Thursday, a single railcar will roll through at a fast walking speed, said spokesman Bruce Gray. By fall, multiple trains will be on the track. And next spring, a fleet of empty trains will rehearse real-life conditions.

Service from downtown Seattle to Tukwila is scheduled to begin next July — the first transit trains in the valley since 1937. The full $2.7 billion line will reach Seattle-Tacoma International Airport a few months later.

Seattle-area politicians, on the transit board, chose to put tracks on the surface despite neighborhood protests and a lawsuit. Surface construction is cheaper than a tunnel, and looks better than an elevated line that would visually divide the neighborhood, the agency concluded. Sound Transit has tunneled through Beacon Hill, and plans to dig through Capitol Hill and the University of Washington area. Other surface tracks were built in Sodo.

Several years ago, an environmental report predicted 29 train-automobile collisions per year on MLK, and three collisions with pedestrians, based on national averages. Since then, managers have said they expect less mayhem, because of design innovations and Seattle's relatively good drivers.

Left turns from MLK are allowed only on left-turn arrows, to reduce conflicts with trains going straight. Electronic signs show a train icon whenever trains are approaching. There are several "Z-crossings," where short fences channel pedestrians and force them to look in the direction of approaching trains. There are refuge islands in the median where people can stand, if they can only make it halfway.

Seattle's safety features resemble Portland's Yellow Line, which follows a less-populated surface route north of downtown.

Day-care provider Kristine Johnson, walking with 12 children Tuesday, said she's excited about taking them aboard the train. But the walk signal at South Othello Street, at 35 seconds, is about four seconds too short, she said. With trains in the mix, she'll count and recount her children to ensure they make it across MLK before she does.

Johnson expects confusion among new immigrants, the elderly and children living nearby. "I've seen cars get high-centered, people going the wrong way, people trying to dodge," she said. "They should have put it underground."

Minutes later, a man carrying groceries jaywalked in three directions, trying to catch a bus; drivers slowed and waved him across. A mile north, a couple of boys ran a race, one between the tracks and the other on a sidewalk.

Safety evangelists have their work cut out.

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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