To give an idea of how just how utterly fucked up our railway “safety” regulatory schemes have become, take the case of the Tampa streetcar. Their streetcars cannot get across a single, at-grade CSX railway crossing without having to pay $400k per year in insurance:
The TECO Line Streetcar System is paying a whopping $400,000 a year — more than a quarter of its annual budget — for liability insurance at a single CSX railroad crossing. The $100 million policy enables the streetcars to cross a track that eight freight and passenger trains use daily. The expensive premium has so far cost more than $4 million and nearly drained the streetcar’s $5 million endowment years earlier than planned. The strain the payment places on the budget was a major factor in last year’s decision to run the streetcar less frequently, a move that contributed to a sharp decline in ridership.
The insurance issue is all the more disconcerting because, on average, only four CSX freight trains and four Amtrak passenger trains use the crossing at 13th Street and Fifth Avenue daily. Streetcars use the crossing about 60 times a day.
If the insurance situation were not so urgent and expensive, its early history surely would provide comedic lessons on how not to run a railroad.
In June 2001, about 10 months before the streetcar project was expected to be finished, streetcar and city officials suddenly realized the $500 million liability policy requested by CSX would require about $1 million in premiums, according to news accounts. Then-Mayor Dick Greco said at the time he’d learned of the insurance requirement only a few months before. A HART official said he’d been aware of the insurance requirement for years.
“The short answer was that we didn’t have time to get insurance,” English said.
Early negotiations dragged on, then were complicated by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. English said public institutions that sought insurance suddenly could not find private sector firms to write large policies. Facing that reality, city officials and CSX agreed on a novel solution: pay flagmen to sit in an air-conditioned trailer at the rail crossing. The plan cost about $300,000 a year in a two-year deal, with the idea that streetcar officials would use the time to find less costly insurance.
The streetcar began service in October 2002. The flagman plan seemed to work fine at first but eventually began to run into problems. In July 2003, a streetcar operator reported he had the flagman’s OK to cross the tracks while an Amtrak passenger train was backing up to the intersection.
Four days later, a streetcar operator was given the OK to cross the tracks but fortunately stopped as a train rolled by.
Worried by the problems, CSX, streetcar and city officials came up with a more elaborate plan: post a streetcar supervisor there.
As negotiations dragged on, one pundit suggested that to overcome the liability issue, riders could disembark, walk across the tracks and re-board the streetcar.
As crazy as this sounds, it is even worse with other light rail systems. They avoid this nonsense by building full-blown grade separation, even at costs in the hundreds of millions.