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Monday, November 28, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Monorail collision result of hazard created during 1988 track redesign

Seattle Times staff reporter

For 17 years, monorail drivers managed to elude a known safety hazard — that two trains would wedge together near Westlake Center, where the dual tracks converge at a pinch point.

The run of good luck finally ended Saturday night, when the monorail system's safety procedures broke down, and two trains sideswiped each other.

"This is not a design we are too thrilled about," said Stuart Rolfe, a partner in Seattle Monorail Services, which operates the one-mile system for Seattle Center. The layout, he said, was "not a good engineering decision." The tracks were aligned that way in 1988 to fit with the new Westlake Center mall, prior to SMS taking over the monorail in 1994.

Rolfe said Sunday that he doesn't expect the tight section to be rebuilt to solve the problem, but the accident may prompt other safety improvements or better procedures. Seattle police are investigating the accident, and the National Transportation Safety Board may participate, a police spokesman said. There were no serious injuries in the 7:10 p.m. accident, though 84 passengers aboard the two trains were evacuated.

The first job is to disentangle the trains with a crane. That was to happen Sunday but will be postponed until at least tonight, after rush hour, said Seattle Center spokesman Perry Cooper. The trains will be pulled by tow truck for a mile, back to the maintenance shop.

Seattle Center will consider providing a shuttle bus to downtown for the holidays, Cooper said. Last year, a shuttle bus operated for a month and a half after a May 31 fire closed the line until just before Christmas. The repair costs, as well as the overall future of the historic line, are unknown.

In September, Seattle Center Director Virginia Anderson told the City Council the 43-year-old system is being held together by "baling wire and chewing gum," and that it would require $50 million to $100 million to rebuild, based on estimates for the now-aborted Green Line from Ballard to West Seattle. Cooper downplayed those numbers over the weekend: "It was just a figure thrown out. We had no research, no validity or anything for it," he said.

Rolfe said costs to restart the existing line would be nowhere near that high. Even if both trains were a total loss, new ones would cost, at most, $8 million each, based on the Green Line bid price.

The metal sides of the trains, at least one door and a power rail along the trackway were damaged.

The decision to taper the tracks 4 to 5 feet apart, for trains just over 10 feet wide, was part of an attempt to beautify downtown by getting rid of a bulkier station.

When the monorail opened in 1962, a huge station formed a lid over Pine Street and a piece of Westlake Park, leaving plenty of room for both trains. It was demolished in the late 1980s, in favor of a compact station that poured tourists into the upper level of the new Westlake Center mall.

According to a design document from 1987, builders wanted to squeeze the tracks together and allow passengers to reach them on retractable ramps from the mall. Otherwise, the alternative would involve switching trains from the outer track to an inner track adjacent to the mall. Such track switches in other cities require massive concrete platforms.

The Westlake station was designed by Raymond Kaiser Engineers and the Rouse Co., the mall developers, subject to city review.

The tracks were squeezed closely together near Westlake Center so that automatic ramps could reach from the platform on the mall's upper level to trains on either the inner or outer rail. But only about 4 feet separate the tracks, leaving no room for two trains to fit — or even pass. To prevent a sideswiping crash, monorail drivers are supposed to call the operations base by radio when leaving the Westlake station, said Rolfe. For the approaching drivers coming down Fifth Avenue, a signal on one of the track-support piers will show a green arrow when the tight Westlake Center area is clear of the other train, explained Glenn Barney, monorail general manager.

Darcy Uphaus, who witnessed the crash Saturday night, said she saw the driver of the southbound Blue Train waving, and she heard a honk.

Rolfe called the collision, the first of its kind, a "breakdown in protocol." One of the drivers has three years' experience, the other more than one year, so both are familiar with the hazard, Cooper said. Usually just one train operates, with dual-train operations on busy days. The accident happened at the end of a holiday rush; Barney said one of the trains was on its last run before the line was to revert to single-train service.

"Monorailists have been concerned with the Westlake Station redesign ever since it was built," said Kim Pedersen, California-based founder of The Monorail Society, a worldwide enthusiasts group. "Besides increased collision danger, the pinched track prevents any hope of system extensions further downtown."

The worst mishap in the monorail's history came in 1971, when a train smacked a girder at the Seattle Center station, injuring 26 people. Similar, less severe crashes occurred in 1979 and 1980. Last year's fire stranded about 150 people aboard until firefighters rescued them, while stalled trains required ladder evacuations in 2002 and 2003.

Despite the weekend accident, Cooper said Seattle Center is confident Seattle Monorail Services can operate the system safely. He praised SMS for its response to the 2004 fire, when the firm spent $2.6 million to install warning systems, flame-retardant materials and new upholstery.

City Councilwoman Jan Drago said she doesn't know yet whether she'd support fixing the system. "I don't know what the damage was, I don't know what the cost is. What I can tell you is that it is a part of our transit system. It carries over 2 million people a year between Seattle Center and downtown." The Center earns some parking revenues from people who ride the monorail downtown, she said.

Rolfe, who met with city officials Sunday, said, "We've had very good cooperation and support from all the agencies. We've not had any conversation about not going back into operations. The real question is what needs to be done, how much is it going to cost, and how long will it take?"

Ed Brighton, an advocate of preserving the historic monorail, said the city should seek a "silver lining" in the accident, by taking the opportunity to make the tracks safer, and consider extending them to the Washington State Convention and Trade Center.

Since voters dissolved the Green Line project this month, some citizens have been considering a political effort to back long-term improvements for the one-mile monorail, he said.

Geof Logan, an activist who fought the Green Line, predicted the city will back a restart, even though he believes the old monorail has reached the end of its lifespan. "People are too attracted to this thing. They'll pour $25 million, $40 million into this project. ... The city's going to have to figure out how it's going to spend its financial resources."

Seattle Times staff reporter Carol Ostrom contributed to this report.

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

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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