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Platforms and station safety concept

Railroads in central Europe use a simple station safety concept: The track is off limits. This basic rule was already supported and enforced half a century ago. At the staffing level of modern railroad operation, it got a tendency to fail in everyday practice, so it is tried to support it by station design.

When looking at the USA instead, it first needs to be acknowledged, that just a few decades ago, such concept would have been good for a laughter. While European railroads were typically built along the city limits of 18xx, US settlements of the 19th century were young and rapidly changing. Quite often, the railroad was accomodated in the middle of the street.

Steam train on the boardwalk of a sea 
1947: Southern Pacific "Suntan Special" arrives at Santa Cruz.

Even transcontinental traffic moved down the street: The Southern Pacific mainline entered San Francisco this way, well into the 20th century, and the most modern transcontinental railroad, the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul, built in the 20th century, passed through Renton WA on the median of a rather narrow street. Few decades ago, a streetcar-style station was no exotic situation for a long distance named train. And of course, trying to declare the street off limits doesn't work.

Brown F-Unit with a passenger train in
the middle of a street.  Long freight train operates on a
1973: Amtrak 6, The Floridian, has stopped for passengers at the station of Clearwater FL. Today, the passenger trains are gone, but a few freights still pass at 10 mph.

Having to deal with passengers on the track, US railroads work on the assumption, that the track needs to be cleared. The station safety concept is based on making enough noise during arrival and departure to assure that. If trying to attach a positive spin, it can be said, that train service in the USA comes with all the bells and whistles. But the procedure is not available without some drawback.

For success, rail transit needs to go back to the people

In the 1970s, it was fashionable, to speed up passenger rail by serving less stations. These stations got more parking space, assuming, that the customers would go to the station by car. It didn't work. Traffic planners had to learn, that this principle depends on seriously congested roads in rush hour. At any other time, those sitting down in their cars are lost for public transport.

The railroads had to move back to the people, and the common concept for today's rail transit is: Serving more stations within the same time, by using rolling stock with much better acceleration than in the old days. In addition, planners won't look at the historical depot locations, but adjust station locations for covering a maximum number of citizens within walking distance circles, looking at the population distribution of today. Doing so has turned out to be one of the most successful elements of modern rail transit.

A classic example of the 1990s has been the improvement program for the suburban service Karlsruhe (283 000 inhabitants) – Bretten (27400 inhabitants) in Germany. The number of stations was more than doubled. Including a short street-running section, an average speed of 25 mph is achieved for an average stop distance of one mile. Skip-stop trains operate with an average speed of 34 mph and a stop distance of 2.25 miles.

Line map showing station locations in a before-after comparison.  City map with circles around railroad stations.
Bringing higher-density areas into walking distance to the train was one goal of the Karlsruhe – Bretten transit improvement program.

Within two years, the number of passengers using this route was raised from 2000 to 8000 daily. Until today, 16000 have been reached. This success was also caused by better frequency, more one-seat-rides, and other improvements, but the new station spacing was an important element. This means: Success depends on the possibility, to locate stations close to the citizens, at the points with highest population density, in residential areas, not far away from bedroom windows.

Why bad neighbours have less passengers.

The following picture shows such stop, built new from scratch within another improvement program. "Au im Murgtal" lost its station by a 1970s-style speedup in 1980, and got it back in 2002. Instead of using the historical station location, the platform was moved directly below this little town, into walking distance. The last train leaves at 1:13 a.m., the first at 4:47 a.m..

New platform, surrounded by a rural settlement.
If trains arrive and depart with ringing bells from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m., would the neighbours have supported a new railroad station at this location?

Normally, citizens living close to future stations should see the most advantage in, and should be the most outspoken supporters of passenger rail. They get all the advantages. If a passenger railroad operates noisily, it will loose that political support. It might even happen, that the citizens close to future station locations fight against it, forcing 2nd choice or 3rd choice station locations. Wrong station locations can easily remove half of the passenger potential within the walking distance circles.

While there are very logical reasons for the current style of operation, it comes at the price of less political support, and at the price of less traffic planning options.

Be quiet, but do it safely

Even today, there are some passenger rail stations in the street, but especially within newbuilt projects, the problem can be considered to be one of the past. This does not mean, that the style of operation can change easily. Different infrastructure won't change user behaviour, unless carefully designed for it.

Trespassing is done for convenience. If legal crossings are clearly marked and more convenient than illegal ones, the number of trespassers approaches zero. But as soon as trespassing is too convenient, violations can't be avoided at the staffing level of modern railroad operation. Platform height is one of the decisive elements for the probability of trespassing. This is easily spotted in Central Europe, where a wealth of different platform heights exists for historical reasons. Every height has its drawbacks, but some of them simply don't work.

A critical look at European examples

In Germany or France, Intercity trains pass occupied platforms at 125 mph, trains arrive and depart without bells or whistles, and a delayed train might enter the station at the maximum speed, which is possible with a full service brake application.

Train arrives at a crowded platform.
Intercity train arrives for a 3-minute stop at Hamburg main station.

Mainline stations in Germany use a platform height of 2.5 feet. At this height, trespassing is almost unknown, because climbing down and climbing up is not impossible, but a serious obstacle. "Serious obstacle" is enough of a deterrence for behaviour, which is shown for convenience.

Looking at the RICA list, on the website of that organization, common height of depressed center flatcars in the USA is 2 feet. This means, that "German" platforms of 2.5 feet interfere with freight moving interests, and won't be a brilliant idea under USA conditions.

Transformer on a special flatcar.
Most of the depressed center flatcars have a load platform height of 2 feet. Those for really heavy loads are a little higher.

On the other hand, recent experience with low platforms has been quite disappointing in Europe. In the 1950s, when platforms of 15 inches were built at many places, there were stationmasters, platform supervisors, trains with conductors, a lot of crew around the railroad. At the much lower staffing level of today, trespassing within such stations can be a major problem.

Passengers walk across the track, 
in front of a DMU.
Grandfathered 15 inch platform of Kreiensen depot in Germany. Today, low platforms like this are illegal to build for safety reasons.

When looking more closely, experience with passenger behaviour in the USA and Europe is very similar: Trespassing is difficult to avoid with low platforms. US railroads have chosen the noise, because an infrastructure partly based on street running did not give them many other options. In Europe, railroads raised the platforms, which achieves faster boarding, less falls and other accidents at the doors, and less incentive for trespassing.

Level boarding with a bicycle.  Pushing a stroller over a level doorstep.
Switzerland: Troublefree level boarding with 1.8 feet platforms at the mainline.
While the NJT "River LINE" uses tight gaps with its platforms of the same height, the Swiss bridge the gap with a push-out level step.

While Germany uses 2.5 feet platforms for mainlines, several other EU countries have opted for the UIC standard of 1.8 feet, which is also used for the TGV network. In the USA, this height is used by the "River LINE" of New Jersey Transit. As demonstrated by this operation, achieving a level boarding situation at this height is no problem. (At least no problem with trains built to European mainline standards. Under current FRA car body strength regulations, using lowfloor trains is unfeasible in most cases.)

The same platform height allows oversized freight to pass. None of the common types of depressed center flatcars reaches as low as 1.8 feet. RICA lists three exceptions on the whole North American continent, rather small 4-axle cars.

Schnabel car with transformer travels parallel to a road.
When transporting oversized goods, European railroads are handicapped by a tiny loading gauge, plus a catenary adjusted to that gauge. For this reason, oversized transformers don't go by depressed center flatcar, but by schnabel car.

Big transformer at a platform edge.  Big transformer moved away from the platform edge.
With such loads adjusted as low as 5.1 inches above top of rail, clearance at platforms is tested regularely. At 1.8 feet platforms, even schnabel car loads pass fine normally, hydraulic adjustment is the exception. Higher platforms can cause major difficulties for the specialized transport companies.

Another possible exception are schnabel car loads, which might not have a load-carrying beam underneath. The big schnabel cars are commonly outfitted for hydraulic lift, allowing them to pass far more serious obstacles – especially in the USA, without a catenary overhead. In most cases, the mechanism is surplus at 1.8 feet platforms, which are no problem for these cars.

The best compromise of freight moving needs and passenger safety.

As soon as a passenger railroad achieves a high level of safety, station accidents like falls, door accidents, and trespassing cause a major percentage, perhaps the majority of injuries and fatalities. Regarding passenger safety, level boarding with very high platforms (example: Shinkansen in Japan) achieves the best results. While the 1.8 feet platform height does not reduce the number of trespassers to zero, it allows the necessary clearance for freight. If used with rolling stock for level boarding, almost the same level of passenger safety is achieved. Looking at the importance of railfreight movement within the USA, this height can be called the best compromise for accomodating both freight and fast passenger services.

This conclusion does not mean, that such platforms are legal to build everywhere.

Part 2: Employee safety more important than passenger safety, a surprising concept.

Unit conversion for text on this page.
2.5 feet 76 cm
2 feet 61 cm
15 inches 38 cm
1.8 feet 55 cm
5.1 inches 13 cm

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Last modified: 2005-12-27