We received an angry call this afternoon from Maggie Lynch, the Municipal Transit Agency’s spokesperson, about our cable car investigation tonight. Before the story even aired, Lynch complained she didn’t know where we got the numbers that were the basis of our report; that surely we must have massaged whatever data we received to skew the story. I assured her that, as we explained to MTA Safety Director Michael Kirchanski during our interview, we relied on data from the Federal Transit Administration (see explanation below). Kirchanski repeatedly told us during the interview that he had no reason to doubt the federal government’s data. Our conversation with Lynch became heated, until she finally said she doesn’t work for us – it’s her job to protect the MTA. I would argue as a public servant paid with your tax dollars, Lynch works for you and me, and that she should be most concerned with getting the public accurate information in a timely manner. I know that she and others at the MTA will be reading this blog. I invite them to post a response to our investigation below, or to any part of our newsgathering process.
After we hung up, we received another angry call from the FTA. An official complained that we were reporting “the FTA says cable cars are unsafe”; he apparently had heard from Maggie Lynch. When we explained the point of our story, that “mile for mile, cable cars get in the most accidents and cause the most injuries of any form of public transportation in the country,” he was satisfied. That’s an accurate statement. We counted on the FTA for the data, not for any editorial comments about the data. We are very careful about reporting the facts, and this story is no exception. Unlike many public agencies, the I-Team strives to be as transparent as possible. So, we want to give you all the raw data that formed the basis of this report.
“Now, the numbers..."
We wanted to find out if what I reported eight years ago is still true – that cable cars are a relatively dangerous form of public transportation. We called the Federal Transit Administration. The FTA is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. It collects statistics from more than 600 transit agencies across the country and compiles those numbers in the National Transit Database.
Those numbers show that per passenger mile, cable cars are the most accident prone form of public transport in the country. The "collision" and "collision injury" rates for cable cars are consistently higher than buses, trolley buses, light rail, heavy rail and commuter rail.
In San Francisco last year, cable cars had more than double the "collision injury" rate of regular buses, more than three times the rate of electric trolley buses, and nearly four times the rate of light rail. And in 2004, it was even worse: more than three times worse than regular buses, four times worse than light rail, and five times worse than trolley buses.
If you look at the raw numbers, Muni buses seriously hurt more people than cable cars – over seven times more last year. But, bear in mind, those Muni buses log 190 million passenger miles a year, compared to about nine million for cable cars.
We've attached a copy of the FTA data, so you can take a look for yourself. It contains raw accident numbers, which are reported by transit agencies including Muni to the FTA, as well as calculations of accident rates per 100 million passenger miles. The legend below will help you decipher the numbers.
HR=Heavy Rail (Subway systems like BART)
CR=Commuter Rail (Pulled by diesel locomotives like Caltrain)
NOC=Not Otherwise Classified
Major Injuries = Injuries that require immediate medical treatment away from the scene. Muni sends an incident report with a narrative to the FTA for every major injury.
Non-Major Injuries = "Slips, trips and falls". These figures are sent in aggregate, as a numerical count only.