Subway and LRT safety in France
March 12, 2010
the agency overseeing the “guided transportation systems” in France publishes some numbers worth to be repeated . Though that the sample sizes prevent to draw definitive conclusions: we can still exhibit some trends: not surprisingly multi year studies tend to show that subways  are order of magnitude safer than LRTs . This said, it is interesting to probe the source of tram accidents, what is provided by the graphs below.
It appears, that the bulk of accidents happen at intersections where they involve third parties. If car are responsible of most of the conflict, it is mainly, pedestrians and cyclists whose pay a disproportionate human toll considering the transportation modal sharing . Furthermore, a study of the Belgium institute on road safety shows that while tram/pedestrian conflicts represent 2.1% of the overall pedestrian conflicts in Brussels, they result in more than 6.7% of vehicle/pedestrian conflicts with severe injuries  while that pedestrians represent more than 50% of the overall fatalities on the french trams network . However, a non negligible number of accidents happen outside platforms and crossings: most of them involve emergency braking of the trams, which are responsible of most of the passenger casualties. The french agency has further detailed the pattern of crossing accident, and provides statistic per crossing:
Comparison with the US
It can be interesting to compare the french statistic to the American one, as reported by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
Though that the accident ratio between subway and LRT witnessed in France is also founded in USA, there is a striking difference in the number of casualties per million of trip.
One explanation to it could be the suicide ratio:
- statistics are not including casualties due to suicide, but suicide characterization can be different according to the country. Thought that casualties due to suicide are not well documented, anecdotal evidences seem to show that the French authorities are more willing than the North American ones to classify an accident as a suicide: Some officious counting report around 70 suicides per year on the Parisian RATP metro alone , when this number is of around 30 in New York City , and 15 in Toronto . For purpose of a study on the suicides in the Montreal subway, the researchers have requalified fatalities, considered as accident by the coroner, as suicide .
That said, the American LRTs still seem more prone to accident than their french counterpart. We can attempt some explanations to it. .
- LRT accidents are significantly due to third parties, and eventually the measure of accident/trip is unfavorable to the less patronized US LRT vehicle. This explanation can be countered by the fact that busy LRT lines involve busy pedestrians traffic around their route, hence increasing also the chance of accident.
- Average speed of french LRTs, usually in the 15 to 20km/h range is significantly slower than their american counter part
- Design of European LRT could be more permissibe too
- Front design of low floor european LRT seems less prone to drag pedestrian under the railcar
- All low floor design reduce the chance of fall inside the car in case of emergency braking
- More frequent LRT could increase the public awareness of their presence
- Due to the above factor, French LRT seem also less attractive than their US counterpart to suicide candidate
Compared to even recent American design, the European tram design features all low floor train,with “housed” coupler into an all “soft angle” front design, and offers an unobstructed view fro the driver…all these eventually help to prevent or reduce accident consequences (credit photo, Northfolk LRT: LRTA, Brussel tram in Vancouver: Stephen Rees)
Nantes, a real life example
To provide some more reality to the statistic, we provide the example of the Nantes Trams network :
it has opened in 85, has 3 lines, totalizing 42km, and carrying an average of 266000 riders /day.
- One accident every 2 days
- One accident in 4 involves injuries
Interestingly enough, according to the Nantes transit agency, their BRT records a rate of accident twice less than their trams, though their buses go faster . It is eventually due to a better designed right of way for the bus than for the trams .
 see Accidentologie des tramways, Service Technique des Remontées Mécaniques et des Transports Guidés DES TRAMWAYS, 2006 and
Accidentologie des metros, Service Technique des Remontées Mécaniques et des Transports Guidés DES TRAMWAYS, 2006
 French subways include also the “VAL” family of subway
 French LRTs include also the guided bus systems
 The rate per million of passengers is not necessarily the most relevant, but it is the only one readily available from the french statistics, which are averaged on the number of available years after 2003 to provide a more relevant sample size. For USA, to increase the sample size, the accident statistics are the average of year 1994 to 2006, as provided by the BTS 2009 report
 Transportation mode share of 14 metropolitan area with tram in France, from “Les deplacements a Nantes metropole Etude N 80, decembre 2009, Insee Pays de Loire, France citing “enquêtes nationales transports et communication 1993-1994, transports et déplacements 2007-2008”, Insee, SOeS and Inrets.