Is this ride safe?

After fatal crash, commuters wary but still stand by the Green Line, saying it's affordable, reliable - and the best they've got

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ralph Ranalli
Globe Staff / June 8, 2008

Shaken by the fatal Green Line trolley crash the previous evening, Shirley Smith got in her car and made the drive from her Newton Centre home to her job in downtown Boston.

After exactly one day of facing rush-hour traffic both ways and paying for gas and parking, she was back on the MBTA platform in Newton Centre, waiting for a Riverside trolley. But she wasn't happy about it.

"I decided to take the T this morning because I wanted to save on gas," said the 45-year-old social worker, who has been riding the Green Line for three decades. "But I'm still hesitant about getting on and taking a chance with my life."

Smith's ambivalence was shared by numerous riders interviewed in the wake of the May 28 crash, which claimed the life of Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority driver Terrese Edmonds, 24, of South Boston.

On Tuesday, federal transportation safety inspectors were still working to determine the cause of the accident, but officials said that the trolley being driven by Edmonds was traveling at almost 40 miles per hour - four times the speed it should have been moving - when it rear-ended another trolley near Woodland Station in Newton. According to preliminary findings in the federal investigation, Edmonds did not apply the brakes before the impact.

A dozen riders were injured in the crash, two of them seriously. It was the fifth accident involving a Green Line trolley in the last nine months, and the second serious crash in three years.

Still, many riders said that it would take a lot more than the recent history of mishaps to scare them away from a mode of transportation that is generally affordable, reliable, and convenient - particularly compared with the cost of an automobile commute now that gasoline is cresting the once-unthinkable $4 per gallon mark.

Almost all of the commuters interviewed said that some risk is unavoidable with a system like the Green Line, which relies on human drivers and lighted signals rather than computers.

"I trust it as much as you can trust it, based on the fact that it has human operators," said Dean Hawthorne, a 44-year-old personnel administrator who lives in Newton. The crash "was very unfortunate, especially for the driver who died and her family, but with human beings . . . it's just something that's bound to happen at certain intervals."

Hawthorne said he may have been on one of the trains that was involved in the crash, since he got off his trolley a couple of stops before the crash site about 10 minutes before it happened.

Most veteran Green Line riders could share a story about being involved in a near-miss or a minor mishap.

For Smith, it was a downed electrical cable a few years ago that kept her and her fellow passengers stranded on a train for nearly an hour.

For 39-year-old Rhonda Belka of Newton Centre, it was a minor derailment over the winter that MBTA officials blamed on icy tracks.

Belka said she was nervous about getting on the trolley the day after the accident, but she tried to think positive thoughts. A few good rationalizations later, not only was she back on the train, she said, but she was feeling pretty confident.

"I was just thinking about the law of averages," the software engineer said. "I mean, what are the chances of something like that happening again so soon? And the fact that they are investigating means that something like that is less likely to happen in the future. Maybe people will be more alert now."

Operator error was blamed for the last serious Green Line crash, in 2005, when three MBTA employees were injured and more than 100 people had to be evacuated through an emergency hatch, and it is also being investigated as a possible cause in the May 28 crash.

However, most veteran riders praised the work of the drivers who get them back and forth to work each day.

"They seem to be careful and paying attention to things," said Holly Libby, a 25-year-old medical technician who lives in Newton's Auburndale section.

Libby said she just missed being involved in an accident in December when two Green Line trains bumped in the Boylston Street Station - her stop was just before the crash site. She believes last month's crash was "just a horrible accident." Although it was frightening, Libby said, she is trying to keep it in perspective.

"I don't think it is any more unsafe than driving my car in Boston," she said. "So I'll still take it."

The support for the T's drivers was not universal, however. Smith said she has occasionally seen train operators talking on cellphones while driving, which MBTA officials say is a violation of safe operating rules. Federal crash investigators have said they have no indications that Edmonds was using a cellphone when the crash occurred, but they had not ruled it out as a possibility.

Smith said she hopes the tragedy will convince T officials of the need to reduce speeds along the Green Line's Riverside spur, and to put stricter rules in place to ensure that drivers "are paying attention."

Until they do, she said, she will continue to ride the train with a lump in her throat and butterflies in her stomach. She now makes a point to ride in the middle of the trolley, she said, to make sure she is away from any potential impact points should a crash occur.

Other Green Line riders, including 16-year-old Leeza Meteleva of Charlestown, who uses it to visit her aunt in Newton, say they simply have no practical alternative and that it doesn't matter how nervous they get, as long as they get from Point A to Point B.

"It was shocking that it happened," Meteleva said. "But I still have no choice. So that's pretty much it."

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