Thursday, January 27, 2005

Safety of system's 443 crossings discussed
Glendale's mayor says he wants them eliminated
By Tom Kisken and Tamara Koehler

As rail and safety officials said there was no way to prevent Wednesday's train tragedy -- no way to keep a person bent on suicide off the tracks -- Bob Yousefian offered a suggestion.

The mayor of Glendale said he'll lobby state and federal government agencies to build railroad bridges and block roadway crossings like the one a Compton man drove across to park his sport utility vehicle in the way of a Metrolink commuter train.

Aborting what police believe was a planned suicide attempt, the man scrambled to safety but his Jeep Grand Cherokee stayed in place, igniting a three-train collision that killed at least 11 people and injured more than 180.

"You'll never be able to stop a person who wants to kill himself ... but what I'm saying is we need to eliminate conflicts between vehicles and railroad trains," Yousefian said. "The way you do it is you either have a bridge or an underpass. ... I'm going to lobby everyone under the sun."

As officials try to figure out how to prevent such a catastrophe from happening again, they say Yousefian's suggestion of eliminating the 443 crossings in the five-county Metrolink system would cost more than the mayor's $2 billion estimate and take more than 10 years to complete.

"It's a knee-jerk reaction," said Keith Millhouse, a Moorpark City Council member who serves on Metrolink's board of directors. "The money to do that doesn't exist."

But Yousefian said he and other regional leaders have been lobbying government agencies to eliminate crossings for years. He said Wednesday's accident was only the biggest tragedy, not the first.

"We're going to spend $80 billion in Iraq," he said. "Why can't we spend $2 billion and solve these issues?"

California ranked fifth in the nation for the number of highway-rail grade crossing collisions in 2003 and third for the number of injuries caused by such incidents, according to preliminary statistics from the Federal Railroad Administration. Texas ranked highest in the nation, with 284 collisions.

Final state figures show there were 196 collisions in California in 2003, injuring 201 people and killing 20. Trains and vehicles collided 139 times in the state last year, according to the California Highway Patrol, injuring 89 people and killing nine.

Drive around crossing barriers

Experts say many of the deaths are caused when motorists drive around crossing barriers or guess wrong about the speed of an oncoming train.

State Public Utilities Commission officials talked Wednesday about the possibility of using video technology at railroad crossings to give engineers more warning of what might be in their way. Experts debated whether the Metrolink train would have derailed if the engine had been in front pulling the passenger cars instead of pushing them from the rear. That way, the SUV would have been struck by the engine instead of a lighter cab car.

Although he thinks eliminating all roadway crossings is infeasible, Millhouse said there might be ways to better protect crossings, such as building roadside medians to keep cars from driving around railway barriers. Another possibility is equipment that could allow engines to be more easily moved from one end of a train to another.

But the sad truth might be that no barriers could have prevented Wednesday's crash. Since 2000, there have been 129 "suicides by train" in California, according to the Public Utilities Commission.

"I don't know what you can do," said Ventura County Sheriff Bob Brooks, noting that blocking railway crossings doesn't create a wall. "People could go out to farmland and have access through an orchard. That's very, very difficult to control."

Since 1994, trains running on the Glendale-Burbank Santa Clara Valley line, where Wednesday's crash occurred, have collided 18 times with cars, trucks or pedestrians at various crossings, according to the Public Utilities Commission. The accidents killed 15 people and injured 60. Thirteen of the collisions involved Metrolink commuter trains.

Twelve of the 18 collisions, including two apparent suicides, involved vehicles driven around barriers or drivers trying to beat an oncoming train.

A Metrolink spokesman said there have only been "a few" accidents at crossings, and the numbers have decreased in recent years, but USC engineering professor Jim Moore said there's way too many accidents.

Southern California has far too many roads, meaning far too many crossings, to safely handle a commuter railroad system, Moore said. Metrolink should not have been built in the first place, he said.

He said the commuter system's accidents usually involve a single victim and don't get much attention, but the accidents over the years have made Metrolink one of the most dangerous commuter systems in the nation.

"Left to me, I would shut it down. The geometry of the system is fundamentally flawed," he said.

'Accidents happen'

Mary Travis, manager of rail services for the Ventura County Transportation Commission, said people who want to close the commuter system might as well suggest closing California's freeways, because accidents happen there, too.

"Accidents happen, and this one in particular isn't even an accident," she said, noting authorities are investigating it as a homicide. "I don't know how you can protect against something like that."

More than $155 million in federal funding was awarded nationwide this fiscal year for improving railroad crossings in rural areas. Ventura County received $500,000 and will use the money to install mechanical guard arms at a crossing in Somis.

All of Ventura County's urban railroad crossings have protected crossing-arm barriers, Travis said.

Mayor Yousefian in Glendale wants bridges instead of barriers. He understands there's no absolute way to keep everyone off the tracks at all times.

"But what you do is make it as difficult as possible," he said.

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