Light Rail Incidents: From Response to Extrication


Responses to motor vehicle crashes (MVCs) in and of themselves continue to challenge responders with various issues such as design features and safety systems that are ever changing. When these incidents also involve a commuter light rail vehicle (LRV), they can be much more complex and present higher risks. Unlike the majority of automobiles, the 50-ton light railcars are not easy to stabilize or manipulate with our standard extrication tools and techniques. Having a good understanding of these commuter systems and the challenges they present to your department is necessary when planning for and responding to these incidents.




Light rail systems (LRSs) and other similar commuter rails are integrated transit systems found around the world that run through business and residential areas. They often share traffic with automobiles and pedestrians. In many cities, these systems link vital parts of cities, allowing commuters easy access to businesses, residential neighborhoods, and airports. LRSs have also stretched out to connect towns, allowing daily commuters to avoid congested traffic and rising fuel costs. LRVs can travel at speeds of 55 miles per hour (mph) in nonresidential areas and 35 mph in residential neighborhoods. In these areas, the rail system controls its own traffic lights, which are coordinated with automotive and pedestrian traffic. Stations are spread along the lines for loading and offloading passengers at key civic points. You must understand two important components of the LRS when planning for a rescue.

Click to Enlarge
(1) An SUV and a light rail vehicle collide. [Photo 1 courtesy of Hillsboro Argus (OR) newspaper; all other photos by the Hillsboro (OR) Fire Department.]


The Cars


The cars generally come in two or three sections. Each car weighs about 50 tons and is from 85 to 100 feet in length. The wheel assemblies are referred to as “trucks”; there are two sets of powered trucks per car; one on each end, and one unpowered truck at the center. The pantograph, on top of the cars, connects to the dedicated power lines overhead, which generally carry about 750 volts. Batteries have about 37 volts and are used for auxiliary systems. They are on the lower sides of the cars or in the ceiling areas of cars with lower profiles to allow for better pedestrian access. Depending on the age of the system, there may be different generations of cars or cars made by different manufacturers altogether. You should be familiar with the cars your LRS uses and understand the design features, power systems, and challenges they create in a rescue. You can get most, if not all, of this information by contacting the light rail service in your area. Most likely, it will be happy to provide you with information and even work with you on training. Additionally, there are several sites on the Internet that provide significant information such as along with sites to local light rail service providers.

Click to Enlarge
(2) A new light rail.


The Rails


Types of rails include the “T-rails” and the “girder rails.” The T-rails, also called “raised rails” or “ballasted rails,” are track rails exposed above the ground surface. They are usually, but not always, found in areas where automobiles and pedestrians will not be crossing the rail. Cars on raised rails can have up to 9½ inches of clearance between the cross-member guard in the front or the car and the ground. Girder rails, also called “embedded rails,” are track rails that are flush with the ground surface. Embedded rails are found in stations and along streets. Cars on embedded rails have about three inches of clearance between the cross-member guard up front and the ground. The cross-member guard is a horizontal member made of wood or metal that is attached to the frame of the LRV in front of the first set of trucks. It is designed to prevent debris from going under the LRV or under the trucks. Most of the rescue incidents to which you will respond involve these two types of track rails.

Click to Enlarge
(3, 4) This incident involved a light rail vehicle and a fire engine.
Click to Enlarge




With the increasing need for solutions that address growing metropolitan traffic while providing easy access to services, more and more areas are investing in light rail systems or expanding the system already in place. A June 2008 Time magazine article, “Gas Prices Cause Mass Transit Surge,” quoted the American Public Transportation Association: “In the first three months of 2008, 2.6 billion trips were taken on public transportation in the United States, a 3% increase over the first quarter of 2007.” In fact, some areas in the United States are seeing as much as a double-digit increase; Seattle has had a 23-percent increase.

Although light rail is regarded as one of the most efficient forms of mass transit, it also presents a greater risk for motor vehicle and pedestrian accidents where it runs through residential and business areas. Incidents can range from low-speed MVCs to more complex scenes necessitating heavy extrication and may even include lifting an LRV to remove an entrapped patient. Let’s look at the U.S. Department of Transportation report, which covers a 12-year period (Figure 1). Considering that light rail and commuter rail are more concentrated in metropolitan areas as opposed to motor bus and heavy rail, which can be found all over the country, we realize the impact of light rail incidents in areas of higher automotive and pedestrian traffic.

Click to Enlarge 

When light rail service first began in Hillsboro, Oregon, we experienced an increase of incidents involving pedestrians and automobiles. This is consistent with other areas around the country that start up service as well. Some of the reasons for this are detailed in a Light Rail Research Board 2000 report, Light Rail Service: Pedestrian and Vehicular Safety. These reasons include the following:

  • Motorists drive around lowered automatic gates.
  • People crossing become confused.
  • Motorists disregard regulatory signs at crossings.
  • People crossing and LRV operators cannot see each other.
  • Motorists are confused when there are two separate flashing light signal systems that are used at the same location.
  • Motorists hesitate to drive off the tracks during the track clearance traffic signal interval.
  • Motorists become confused about a second LRV coming from the opposite direction.
  • Automatic gates descend behind stopped motorists or do not effectively block turning traffic.
  • Pedestrian crossings have limited warning devices.
  • Pedestrians dart across the tracks without looking both ways.
  • Pedestrians ignore warning signs.
  • Pedestrians trespass along the light rail traffic (LRT) right-of-way.
  • Pedestrians do not cross the trackway at designated locations.
  • LRT agencies lack guidance (warrants) about when to install pedestrian warning devices.


Additionally, just like all other traffic, close calls with emergency vehicles can and do happen. It is extremely important that your agency have a policy on when and how to proceed when crossing light rail tracks. Unlike heavy rail crossings, where intersections are controlled by crossing gates or stop signs, light rail lines can run in residential and business areas and may not have crossing gates. Even with such policies and training, accidents can occur. One such incident happened in my department on January 2, 2005, when an engine was responding to a house fire and was struck by an LRV at a residential intersection controlled by lights. It resulted in the destruction of an engine and injuries to the four-member engine crew and those onboard the LRV. If it were not for the quick thinking of the apparatus driver, who accelerated after seeing the LRV, the injuries would have been much worse; the cab would have been directly hit. In the end, it was proven that the fire department was not at fault and had the green light for the intersection. However, the scene of a wrecked fire engine and a derailed LRV left a lasting impression with our department and gave us a new perspective on just how much force is created in a collision with an LRV. Working with the light rail agency in your area, you can be proactive in preventing these accidents by understanding one another’s systems and procedures.

Click to Enlarge
(5) The pantograph is in the raised position.

It is important to remember that these 50-ton vehicles need room to stop, even at lower speeds. Consider an LRV traveling on the open line at 55 mph; it has a stopping distance of almost 1,000 feet when using normal braking and more than 600 feet when using emergency braking. At 35 mph, it has a stopping distance of more than 400 feet using normal braking and about 300 feet using emergency braking. Even at low speeds, such as 15 mph, an LRV has a stopping distance of about 100 feet and 81 feet using emergency braking. Responders should consider that there is a high potential for traumatic injuries among the LRV passengers in addition to the vehicle passengers. Emergency braking of the LRVs, even at speeds as low as 15 mph, can cause passengers to move suddenly, resulting in injuries onboard. Realizing this, it is crucial that you, on arrival, conduct a good recon of the entire scene to determine the true scope of the incident.




Incidents involving LRVs present hazards for passengers and emergency workers. As previously noted, LRSs run on about 750 volts of electrical current, delivered to the LRV through a pantograph on the top of the car that is in contact with dedicated overhead power lines. Also, just as we have to be concerned with automobile traffic at MVCs, we must also consider adjacent light rail lines that may still be in service during an incident. While en route, contact the light rail dispatcher and confirm that the pantograph has been lowered and that the trackway is clear for responding companies. When responding to and arriving at these incidents, you must gather key pieces of information to provide for scene safety and setting up the necessary command structure. Departments must be thoroughly familiar with mutual- and automatic-aid resources and their capabilities to save time at the point it is realized that operations will be complex and necessitate these additional resources.




On arrival, you will be responsible for size-up, command, lockout/tag out (lo/to), and rescue operations.




During your size-up, relay to incoming units whether or not there is energy to the LRV, such as declaring “the pantograph is down”; this is a critical piece of safety information. The geographic layout of the incident will possibly have the greatest impact on your size-up. Simple MVCs and pedestrian accidents with an LRV are not so much of a concern; however, at larger incidents where you may not be able to see the entire layout of the incident, it may be necessary for you or a designee to do a 360° walk-around. Gaining access to the scene may also be difficult because of how the accident is oriented relative to traffic or an intersection. Consider using incoming units that are approaching from the other side for obtaining additional information and gaining better access to different parts of the scene.




When taking command, consider that you might have a light rail supervisor already on-scene or en route. Have this person with you at the command post at all times to coordinate additional personnel, equipment, and the opening or closing of rail lines if needed. The supervisor may try to keep one line open, so you will need to coordinate with the supervisor to ensure scene safety. Remember, he is trying to do his job by keeping traffic moving, but he may not have adequate training in emergency operations, so keep him close at the incident command post (ICP). Depending on the complexity of the incident, you might institute a unified command. Most likely, a simple command with light rail as a cooperating agency will work. Since these incidents can create a geographical barrier, Command should consider dividing the scene into divisions to allow for better resource coordination and safety. For significant incidents including derailments, the supervisor should have access to a re-railing team. The re-railing team is comprised of personnel with specific equipment to lift, stabilize, and re-rail an LRV. You should know how long it would take to have a re-railing team respond in your area. If you do not call for one early enough, minutes may be added to your rescue and can take away valuable time from the patient. Additionally, setting up the lifting equipment may take about 15 additional minutes. You should not let these operations delay your agency’s rescue operation. Plan ahead.

Command should coordinate with police for traffic and scene control and evidence preservation for the investigation. Since these incidents will attract the media, have a public information officer (PIO) on-scene. Not only will this allow you to get the correct information out to the public, but it will also present a great opportunity to display your agency’s capabilities to your community.


Lockout/Tag Out


Before approaching an LRV for boarding to administer first aid or set up for extrication, make sure that you are safe. On arrival, look to see that the pantograph is in the lower position; if not, contact the driver and ask to have it lowered. Do this before getting onboard or offloading passengers. If the driver is injured or otherwise unable to lower the pantograph, use the following procedure:

  • Attempt to have the LRV operator lower the pantograph and open the side door.
  • If the operator is injured, you have two choices: contact the light rail dispatch and have that section of line deenergized, or have one of the passengers open the door from the inside, allowing responders to enter the cab to lower the pantograph.
  • If passengers must offload or rescuers must enter while the pantograph is up, they should “hop” so that they do not contact the LRV and the ground at same time.
  • Open the door to the driver’s cab (it is usually locked; you may need to force the door if the driver is injured).



Rescue Operations


Depending on your agency, incidents involving LRVs may be high risk/low frequency, and some LRV rescues may involve some degree of extrication. Entrapments may occur in and around the transit station, where you may have to remove the side panels by prying, cutting, sawing, or cutting with a torch to extricate a patient. Typically, however, injured pedestrians will be found in the area at the front of the LRV involving the guard and truck assembly. These patients can usually be removed from the front by moving the car back in a controlled manner or by removing some specific structural components of the LRV.

If there is a high likelihood of entrapment or the need for extrication, the responding fire department unit should request the re-railing team as soon as possible. While waiting for the team to arrive, do not delay any needed shoring, lifting, or extrication that can be safely accomplished with your resources. When the team arrives, the assigned rescue or extrication group leader should meet with the re-railing team leader, and they should work together on the best approach for the rescue.

In terms of patient care, consult your agency’s protocols for traumatized patients, considering treatment options for crush syndrome and even the possible need for extrication by means of field amputation by a physician. In addition, prolonged incidents may lead to environmental injuries, so be prepared to manage the patients’ temperature (by using warm air blowers during colder weather, for example).

Some scenes might necessitate a combination of lifting and removing the front guard to extricate a patient. One of the most difficult things to ensure in these incidents is stabilization when lifting an LRV during extrication. The reality is that a pedestrian entrapment can be a complicated and dangerous scenario for the patient and the rescuer. Administer treatment after removing the patient. If a lift is needed for a rescue, consider the following key points:

1 What type of light railcar is being lifted? What are the design features, lift points, and concerns?
2 On what type of track is the incident? Embedded or ballasted makes a difference when selecting your options for stabilization and lifting. The type of track at the incident may also indicate whether you have a viable patient to begin with. For example, a pedestrian may be able to survive being struck by an LRV and go under one where it is running on ballasted rails. However, if it is in an area where LRVs travel at 55 mph, survivability is highly unlikely.
3 What part of the LRV needs to be lifted? Did the patient become entrapped at the front of the car or farther back?
4 What is the speed of the LRV? Along with the type of track, the speed at which an LRV is traveling will determine whether you have a rescue or a recovery. It is important to note that you can do a lift for a rescue, but only a light rail re-railing unit should recover victims’ bodies.





LRVs are equipped with jacking pads and side lifting points; an additional lifting point is at the front of the car. The trucks themselves provide stable jacking points. Different manufacturers build into the framework points where you can insert prefabricated bars from the sides for lifting. This is primarily done for the local light rail service and is used for maintenance and re-railing purposes. It is very important to have a good working and training relationship with the service in your area so you will know how to access this equipment if needed.

The car is designed so that it can be jacked as a unit or the car sections can be jacked separately, with the body bending at the articulation section for maintenance and re-railing. Jacking pads along the main body and articulation sections are provided for this purpose. Be certain you know your limitations relative to how high you can lift and what equipment you are using. For example, you may need to lift an LRV only eight inches to remove an entrapped patient, but you should understand how high you can truly lift an LRV, since every situation may be different. Following are three types of lifts to consider.

  • Front truck lift.This lift is for either end of the car. The majority of calls involving a rescue take place at the front truck area. This lift will be explained later.
  • Center truck lift.The center truck is at the center of each railcar. This lift is used when the patient has moved past the front truck assembly. Place the jacks at the area of the cars to lift one section of the car or both sections if needed.
  • Lift using prefab bars. This lift is generally used at the passenger-loading stations. In my area, they are called “Z-bars,” and they are placed into the jacking point holes to provide a lifting arm. When lifting with Z-bars, you must lift the car a minimum of three inches before the trucks will start to rise.





In preparing to lift an LRV, carefully consider the three following equipment needs. Remember, an LRV weighs about 50 tons. If you do not follow through on these three needs, the LRV could be derailed and injure personnel.

1 Base cribbing. The concrete or pavement itself could be the base for a lift, but for a ballasted track, you must have an assembled base of at least a 4-inch × 4-inch lumber or prefabricated base block. An even, level base is essential for a successful lift. The base blocks should be long enough to span two or three ties, and they must also be level on the ballast material (rock). Adding paint and sand to the cribbing will increase the friction of the surface area. Additional cribbing is needed with the base block; 2-inch × 6-inch oak (painted and sanded) will work very well. When stabilizing an embedded rail, place hydraulic jacks on the paved surface or a metal plate, such as a ladder truck outrigger plate, to displace the weight.

Click to Enlarge
(6) Cribbing with a 4-inch × 4-inch lumber base and a 2-inch × 6-inch oak block.
Click to Enlarge
(7) Cribbing with a base block and a 2-inch × 6-inch oak block.

2 Lifting equipment. Air bags, struts, and some hydraulic extrication equipment have their place, depending on the type of incident. Base your decision to use any of them for lifting and stabilization on the need in terms of rescue, equipment capabilities, and stability of the load. In my department and in the surrounding metro area, we have found that a set 20-ton hydraulic bottle jack, at a minimum, is a great tool to use when lifting. It can provide a very standardized approach and stable lift for the majority of calls. A variety of jacks are available; each has its pros and cons. When using bottle jacks, avoid threaded shafts. They are weak links in the lift and may thread backward. Also, a small (eight-inch) and a large (12-inch) jack should also be available for both sides, for a total of four jacks. This will allow for lifts on both ballasted and embedded tracks. Compact high-capacity jacks, such as cylinder pump sets, are other good options. These jacks can have remote pumps that allow the operator to be away from the jack if it fails, and the lifting team leader can more readily see it. Because they may have a shorter throw than the bottle jacks, there may be need for additional cribbing to build up the base. All lifting should be done simultaneously and under the direction of the team leader, to avoid tipping the train and causing a derailment.

Click to Enlarge
(8) Lifting with the compact jacks.
Click to Enlarge
(9) Lifting with bottle jacks.

For a patient entrapped in and around the front of the car, remove the cross-guard by cutting wooden cross-guards or unbolting metal cross-guards.

3 Stabilization. This can be the most difficult of the lifts for ensuring stabilization because of the design of the LRV, which limits adequate placement of crib boxes. However, some options provide adequate stabilization. Consistent with the philosophy of “lift an inch, crib an inch,” you can place oak wedges between the wheels and the track; this at least will permit rapid removal of rescuers and the patient should the jacks fail. Another technique is repetitive jack placement: Place a jack of equal or greater capacity at the same location as the first jack. This will ensure that you capture the load as you lift with one and back up with another, even if the first jack should fail. Reminder: The lift and stabilization mean nothing without proper base cribbing.

Click to Enlarge
(10) Stabilization using wedges at the wheels and rail.
Click to Enlarge
(11) Stabilization using a backup jack.




Prior to setting up for a lift, ask yourself, Is the lift warranted? Can we remove the patient simply by placing a backboard with ropes tied to it or by removing the cross-guard? For patients entrapped in and around the front of the car, you can easily remove the cross-guard by cutting or unbolting, as previously stated.

Click to Enlarge
(12) Team members are in place for a lift.

In some instances, you can remove the side panels and other smaller components with torches, saws, and cutters, allowing access to the patient. Brakes can be bled off on a level track, and LRVs can be “rolled” or moved off the patient in some circumstances. This process can take about 15 minutes; then secure the LRV to stop it from further rolling.

Primarily, extricating a patient found under a light rail car will involve lifting the car and cutting or removing the front guard. The lift provides approximately 18 inches and gives the rescuer more room for access from the front or the side. Lift by using two bottle jacks on base blocks, one on both sides and at specific lift points. You will need at least a three-person team for this evolution—the team leader and two on the jacks (at both sides). The team leader will stay at the front of the train to direct and observe the lift. Any additional personnel assisting will work under the team leader.


Additional Considerations


When our department considers doing a lift, our procedures are as follows:

  • Establish command, and assign an extrication group as needed.
  • Ensure LO/TO by making sure the pantograph is lowered before entering the car or having passengers exit.
  • Obtain clearance from the light rail agency to enter the trackway, if necessary.
  • Consider requesting the response of the light rail re-railing unit, and make note of the response time.
  • Provide for the safe movement of passengers off and away from the train to a safe area.
  • Shut down any incoming light rail traffic.
  • Call a light rail supervisor to the site, if one is not there already; have the supervisor remain with Command.
  • Assemble personnel and equipment for a lift. Use consistent commands when lifting and lowering a car.
    “Set up for lift”: place base blocks and jacks.
    “Load the jacks”: place the load of the car onto the jacks.
    “Lift”: the team lifts the car together or by small adjustments on one side to keep the car level. Hand signal = palm up.
    “Down”: The team sets down together for adjustments. Hand signal = palm down. Once the car has been lifted for a rescue, light rail personnel will lower it.



T-Rail or Raised-Rail Incidents



  • Provide a solid base of cribbing by using the large base blocks and 2-inch × 6-inch oak cribbing. Place a large 20-ton bottle jack under the lifting point.
  • Do this for the opposite side of the light railcar and wheels.
  • Jack both sides together in unison. Note: You must lift both sides together, keeping the car level. If not, the trucks can slide and shift into the trackway.
  • Crib by placing a second jack of equal or greater capacity at an available jack point. You can also place cribbing under all four wheels of the truck as it is being raised. Lift only enough to extricate the patient.
  • Access, extricate, and remove the patient.


Girder Rails or Embedded-Rail Incidents


  • Obtain the wheel/truck access panel key from the light rail operator.


  • Locate and remove the large side panels near the wheels, using the key. Turn the key one-quarter turn. Note: You can use a personal multipurpose tool in place of the key.
  • Locate the lifting plate on the truck assembly.
  • Place the small, eight-inch, 20-ton bottle jacks on the lifting plate.
  • Do this for the opposite side of the light railcar, and lift both sides together in unison. Note: You must lift both sides together, keeping the car level.
  • Raise the trucks far enough so that the large 20-ton bottle jacks will slide under the lifting plate.
  • Continue to raise the truck using the large, 12-inch, 20-ton bottle jacks.
  • Crib by using the first jack at the jack point. You will need to adjust the height of the jack and use 2-inch × 6-inch cribbing to give it the same throw as the taller jack. You can also place cribbing under all four wheels of the truck as it is being raised. Lift only enough to extricate the patient.
  • Access, extricate, and remove the patient.





After an LRV has been lifted, only the light rail re-railing team should lower the car. This avoids any chance of damaging equipment and allows the service provider to properly examine the affected areas of the LRV. Coordinate with the team to collect equipment so you are able to return to service. Since the opportunities to do any extrication or even to do a lift on an LRV may be infrequent for personnel, consider taking advantage of the knowledge gained from such incidents and gather personnel as appropriate to review the lessons learned.




Because light rail systems can run through many jurisdictions, it would be prudent to consider this topic for a regional training issue. We did just that in the Portland Metro area a couple of years ago. Recently, technical rescue personnel from each of the Metro agencies that have light rail, and the Tri-met Re-railing team gathered to compare policies, practices, equipment, and other capabilities. The outcome was an opportunity to learn from one another and to see what resources are available regionally for light rail incidents. We discussed our experiences, both good and bad. As our light rail system is growing, we also brought into the group an agency that soon will have light rail for the first time. Having seasoned and new agencies work together in training demonstrates and instills good practices for everyone. This carries over to a more efficient and cooperative scene for those incidents where agencies will work together under mutual aid.

Currently, because of rising fuel costs, population growth, and a demand to provide “greener” options for transportation, the presence of light rail and systems like it are increasing nationwide. Departments that respond to incidents involving LRVs need to understand what types of calls are generated, how to prepare for them, and how to operate safely and effectively while on-scene.

JASON BLOUNT, a 23-year veteran of the fire service, is battalion chief of EMS and special operations with the Hillsboro (OR) Fire Department, where he has served for the past 18 years. He has an associate degree in fire science, is a fire instructor III, and is a member of the Oregon State USAR TF-1.


More Fire Engineering Issue Articles



Fire Engineering Archives


No posts to display