State plans to remove many rails in tunnels

8 traffic deaths spur response

By Matt Carroll
Globe Staff / April 15, 2011

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Following an eighth traffic death involving the Big Dig tunnels’ handrails, state transportation officials announced plans yesterday to remove or cover many of the railings.

A Massachusetts Department of Transportation report released yesterday, more than a year overdue, called for the removal of thousands of feet of the railings and the covering of other sections with a chain-link fence to protect motorists and motorcyclists. The cost and timing of the work are uncertain.

The sharp-edged railing posts, dubbed by some public safety workers as the “ginsu guardrails,’’ have been criticized because of their role in several grisly accidents.

The most recent fatality occurred March 27, when Brian P. Hicks, a married father of one from Salem, exited the Sumner Tunnel via the Storrow Drive ramp in his white Chevrolet Silverado pickup and struck a Jersey barrier, according to State Police. Hicks, who officials said was traveling at a high rate of speed and not wearing a seatbelt, was ejected from the truck and thrown into the handrails. No one else was in the truck.

The Globe reported last year that between 2005 and 2008, seven people had been killed in crashes in which they struck the handrails that line walkways used by workers, while another lost an arm but survived. One of those killed was a State Police trooper, whose widow won a $9 million settlement from the state and other Big Dig contractor defendants.

The latest death struck home for Sam Maurer, whose son Christopher died in a motorcycle crash in 2008.

“It could easily be predicted, and that is a shame,’’ said Maurer, a Kansas engineer who has campaigned to get the Big Dig railings fixed. “We don’t want anyone else to go through that.’’

A report Maurer commissioned last year contained some of the recommendations made by the Transportation Department.

The department’s eight-page report said the current railings meet all state and federal safety standards. However, “as a result of a number of serious incidents in the tunnels since 2003 . . . MassDOT officials have for the past year had ongoing meetings with federal, state, and city officials to discuss possible modifications to the tunnel rail system,’’ spokesman Adam Hurtubise said in a statement.

The department will remove about 8,000 of the 58,000 feet of railings, which are not required for emergency access, and place chain-link mesh against existing railings in potentially hazardous locations such as curves and other areas yet to be determined. The new railings will be crash-tested before they are installed. Because many of the fatal crashes involved high speed, the department will also review tunnel speed limits with State Police.

The report said 10 people have died in tunnel crashes since 2003, all along curved sections of the tunnels and near ramps. The report pointed out that speed and failure to wear seat belts were factors, “suggesting that the handrails were not the cause of the accidents.’’ The report said six fatalities involved handrails. However, the trooper lawsuit described seven deaths involving handrails. Hicks’s death would make the total eight.

Dean Sicking, one of the country’s foremost authorities on evaluating the safety of roadside structures, praised the state yesterday, calling the decision to remove some railings and cover the others with chain-link fencing a giant step forward. But he was critical of using the fencing only on the curves and not on straightaways.

“Based on the accident experience of curves, it’s hard to believe there won’t be at least one bad crash in a straightaway section in the next 20 to 30 years,’’ said Sicking, director of the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which crash-tests structures along highways. “The odds of losing another person are too great to overlook, in my opinion.’’

Sicking and two other safety specialists interviewed last year by the Globe had criticized the design of the railings, which line about 6 miles of Big Dig tunnels. The railings have posts about three-quarters of an inch wide, with squared-off edges that can act like the cutting blades in a paper cutter.

The safety specialists also said the railings’ horizontal runners were too far apart, making it possible for a driver whose vehicle hits the barrier to get entangled, then slammed into a post. They also said the railings should have been placed higher, which would have made them less lethal to motorcyclists or car passengers who are ejected.

“The loss of those lives was needless,’’ said Annette Gonthier-Kiely, the lawyer for the widow of Trooper Vincent Cila.

Hicks’s death was nearly identical to that of Brian P. Bartlett. Bartlett, a former star wrestler at Bridgewater State, crashed coming out of the Sumner Tunnel at nearly 100 miles per hour in 2008.

Bartlett, who also was not wearing a seat belt, was ejected from his vehicle, thrown into the handrails, and mutilated.

Documents released last summer showed that federal authorities had suggested that the railings might be dangerous and should be crash-tested before they were installed, but their doubts were shrugged off.

“It is not the intent that [the handrails] participate in vehicle collisions,’’ wrote Peter M. Zuk, project director of the Highway Department’s Central Artery/Tunnel project in 1992. “As such, we fail to see the wisdom or the need to expend money to crash-test this rail.’’

The defendants in the Cila case included the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, and other Big Dig contractors. The defendants argued that the handrails met all federal and state requirements.

The Cila lawsuit argued that the state trooper might have survived if tubular railing posts had been used, as they are in many other sections of the state’s highways. The tubular railing posts have no cutting edge.

The Big Dig has had many problems. In February, a 110-pound light fixture fell from the ceiling to the highway, and the revelation of that incident a month later caused a public firestorm, leading to the forced resignation of a top transportation official. In 2006, a Jamaica Plain woman was killed by a ceiling collapse.

Matt Carroll can be reached at