Using one's body or his or her car’s body to stop a 200-ton Metrolink railroad engine with eight cars traveling 79 mph down the tracks is a feat best left for Superman. Yet, mere mortals risk it every day. And this is why a slew of law enforcement organizations joined forces Wednesday to target railroad crossing law breakers.
People in Chatsworth, Moorpark and Simi Valley are particularly vulnerable to such risky behavior because the railway runs right through their communities. With numerous crossings and miles of track, it’s not hard to imagine how pedestrians and drivers could take the railroad for granted. Traveling across railroad lines is all in a day’s commute.
But the death of Phyllis Tunson, who was hit by a fast-moving Amtrak train at the Chatsworth station in December 2010, is still a fresh memory. She was crossing the tracks from one passenger platform to another in an official crosswalk when she was struck. She may have thought that the train was about to stop at the station, but Amtrak's Coast Starlight train No. 11 was not scheduled to stop.
Most do cross the tracks safely, but some choose to take risks and ignore the law. And this is why Metrolink, a host of local law enforcement agents and members of the media have gathered on a rainy, windy morning at the Moorpark rail station to take a ride on what Metrolink called a “rail safety enforcement train,” a sting operation of sorts set up on the train line between Moorpark and Simi Valley.
The goal was to run the line with a standard Metrolink commuter train and nab violators—pedestrians illegally walking on the tracks, drivers stopped across railway intersections and both pedestrians and drivers skirting around railway arms while red lights are flashing, the arms are down, and the train is approaching.
It was a well-coordinated effort. Passengers included employees from Metrolink Security, the Union Pacific Police, Simi Valley Police, and the Los Angeles and Ventura County Sheriff’s departments. In addition, local patrol cars, including officers from the California Highway Patrol, were stationed along each railroad/street intersection ready to ticket offenders. The train also featured a live video feed of the tracks from the engineer’s window so passengers could watch violators in action.
For Robert Berger, Senior Deputy for Community Services with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, the problems in Moorpark can be frightening. Such as this morning, when officers noted a woman in her vehicle with a child in the back at the Spring Street crossing. She had misjudged the traffic flow and, for a scary moment, was squeezed between vehicles on the tracks. Had a train been coming, she and her child could have been crushed.
Berger noted, however, that most problems in Moorpark involve pedestrians. He would like for local residents to understand that if law enforcement catches you walking or driving illegally on the tracks, you can be cited and fined for a misdemeanor.
“We write a significant amount of tickets for pedestrians on the tracks. It’s illegal to walk on the tracks. We also have vehicles trying to cross while the arm is going down and the lights are flashing,” he said.
For Berger, the principle is simple.
“When the arms are going down and the lights are flashing,” he said, “you can’t go.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone challenging a train, but Metrolink engineer Henry Alvarez often sees this type of behavior from his engineer’s seat.
“(The thought of ) hitting a car or pedestrian scares me more than anything else,” he said.
Given the fact that Metrolink’s standard speed along this line is about 79 miles per hour, his dilemma is understandable. With the weight of his engine plus several hundred tons behind him, it takes about a half mile to bring the train to a complete stop, an average of about 128 feet per second.
Accidents on rail lines happen more than we care to think about, especially in California. According to numbers published by the volunteer railway safety group Operation Lifesaver, California is one of the leaders in annual railway collisions and deaths at highway-rail grade crossings. In 2009, it ranked second to Texas with 116 collisions and first in the nation with 32 deaths.
Wednesday, the rail safety enforcement train makes several trips back and forth between the Moorpark Station and Erringer Road in Simi Valley. Not surprisingly, police officers requested several unplanned stops.
The problem of the day seemed to be pedestrians along the tracks. But these are not your average pedestrians. The Moorpark to Simi Valley rail line harbors several transient camps. When officers spot these transients, they stop the train and make arrests for trespassing. Soon after, they discover that several of these folks are on parole or have outstanding warrants. By the time the train finishes its run, there are half a dozen men handcuffed and headed to jail.
Metrolink wants commuters to feel safe while riding. They also want the general public to know that safety is the company’s primary concern—for their employees, their riders and for residents across Southern California who have to coexist with trains. That’s why they run safety checks—often. In 2010, they had 24 such events in Southern California.
“We want to educate the public about risky behavior and also ticketing,” said Sherita Coffelt, Metrolink’s media and public relations officer. “We want to help people understand that this protects their lives and their pocketbooks. We want to enforce the law and educate the public on the importance of safety at crossings and along the right of ways because improving safety equals saving lives.”