OL, FTA and APTA Work Together To Develop Light Rail Safety Program

Seven transit agencies nationwide have received free packets of information for use in their marketing, education, and communications efforts for Light Rail Safety Education.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and Operation Lifesaver (OLI) jointly developed the program, which meets a need identified by many light rail agencies, as well as federal policymakers, with significant assistance by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

Light Rail Benefits

Light rail is one of the fastest growing modes of transit in the country. As urban and suburban areas across America grapple with gridlock and air quality, an increasing number are turning to light rail. Facts about light rail include:

  • Their tracks are embedded in the street or on traditional rails
  • They provide side-by-side or shared corridors with automobiles and buses
  • Service penetrates into established city centers
  • Vehicles running on electric power will reduce fossil fuel use and pollution
  • More than 40 light rail operations already running or in final testing
  • Another 50 in various stages of proposal, design, or plan

“Development of a safety education program whose characters, situations, and messages are widely applicable is challenging – for several reasons,” said Isabel Kaldenbach, OLI’s National Director for Light Rail Safety Education.

Test Sites in Fall 2003

In the fall of 2003, the first packages of materials were distributed to agencies to be tested in their operations. The agencies were:

  • New Jersey Transit, serving the entire state
  • Portland, Oregon
  • San Jose, California
  • Salt Lake City, Utah
  • San Francisco, California
  • Seattle, Washington

Future test sites may include: Memphis, Tennessee, which received materials and is considering being a site. Phoenix, Arizona, has also indicated its interest. Testing and evaluation of campaign results will take place throughout 2004.

Light Rail Primer: Light Rail’s Constant Variety

Unlike traditional rail – i.e. Amtrak, commuter lines and freight railroads – or buses, light rail programs vary enormously from city to city, in operation and infrastructure. Some have dedicated lanes, while others share street corridors; some equipment looks like traditional train equipment, some like early-20th century streetcars.

Others resemble buses on steel wheels; some light rail trains operate in the center median, some at curbside, and others are completely off-street. Because light rail cars are quieter, bi-directional, more frequent, and often operate right on city streets, long-established safety programs for traditional rail are not always applicable to light rail. And finally, since they are heavily locally funded and obviously cater to a very local clientele, light rail programs must be finely tuned to local needs

Transferable to Other Modes

In addition, the OLI/FTA light rail program was intended to be transferable to other modes. Light rail transit customers embark from or disembark to other modes of transit –automobile, bus, subway, heavy rail train, bicycle, etc. Often, these systems are a little too interconnected, in fact; light rail transit customers might step from the train right into a busy street. And while the public education program was slated initially to focus on children in 4th to 8th grades, the character also had to be flexible enough to expand in the future to other ages and modes.

Finding a Message for All

Here was the challenge: Develop a character and set of messages acceptable to and widely usable by all light rail transit agencies.
“The messages had to resonate across widely divergent (rail) systems and the character had to be sensitive to the traveling public in various cities and its endless variety of ethnicities, ages, income levels, disabilities, and of course, both genders,” Kaldenbach said.

In January of 2003, OLI compiled a list of all agencies that either considered themselves light rail, were widely (if erroneously) viewed as light rail by the general public, or were not light rail at all but had extensive rail safety education experience (for example, Long Island Railroad). Also compiled was a list of areas that did not have light rail yet, but had planning and development well underway – since educating people who have never seen light rail in their neighborhood is a particular challenge.

Starting with 44 Transit Agencies

OLI invited 44 transit agencies across the country to participate in developing this program, and made presentations at several public transit conferences throughout the year to introduce as many agencies as possible to the developing effort. Ultimately, 23 agencies and a half dozen experts with previous experience in the transit world came together to helped design a program, agree on a character, and most importantly identify core messages that could help educate customers, future customers, motorists, pedestrians and neighbors about light rail safety.

Through regular conference calls, a listserve, and email contact, seven messages were identified with three to four sub-messages for each and a character and story line were developed. After rejecting some proposals, the group unanimously agreed on Earl P. Nutt, a squirrel who travels the country, seeing the sites.

Various story lines were developed that could place Earl in amusing but educational situations as he travels light rail lines; characters will accompany him on his adventures, including characters already used in logos and education by individual agencies, and reflecting the specific populations on each individual line.

Collateral Materials Selected

Once the group agreed on Earl and his messages, OLI and the educational and graphic design firm Flying Rhino developed collateral materials, including:

  • A 4-minute cartoon and 10-second public service announcement
  • Artwork and signage (posters, advertising cards for the inside of transit vehicles, theater slides, clip art that can be used as needed by agencies)
  • An activity book targeted at 4th to 8th graders
  • A speaker’s handbook.

Materials to Match Needs

The material – distributed free of charge to any transit agency that requests it – is designed to be used as individual transit agencies like, to meet their needs. Agencies can pick and choose among the offerings, drop their logos into the artwork, and/or adapt the artwork and messages for use in their efforts. All materials are being made available in a variety of formats, which should make it easy for an in-house agency or contracted graphic designers to adapt them.

If agencies decide they would like to develop their own cadre of local Presenters, similar to those OLI’s extensive network of presenters across the United States, OLI will train its local speakers to be Presenters using these materials.

“We really appreciate the participation of all the agencies and experts who helped develop this program, particularly the test sites,” Kaldenbach said. “We look forward to their feedback in refining the program, and we particularly look forward to seeing our squirrel, Earl P. Nutt, around the country.”