PICO RIVERA — A freight train stretched across the southern part of the city for 48 minutes last month, blocking intersections and inflaming the tempers of motorists. Children passed over and under train couplings to make it to school before the bell sounded.
It's not uncommon for a Southern Pacific Transportation Co. train to stop on the tracks that run south of Slauson Avenue and cut across Passons, Rosemead and Paramount boulevards, Pico Rivera's main north-south roadways.
But the delay just before 8 a.m. on April 29 was one of the longest in recent memory, City Manager Dennis Courtemarche said.
"We suffered our first telephone overload," Courtemarche said. "We had every available person responding to telephone calls from angry residents."
While a railroad spokesman attributed that particular delay to a signal problem and said Southern Pacific wants to move trains "as quickly as we can," law enforcement agencies are taking a different view.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which polices Pico Rivera, and the Whittier Police Department are filing complaints with the county district attorney's office over five separate incidents in the past two months, including the April 29 delay, Sheriff's Sgt. Sam Patrick said.
Serious Injury Feared
While the delays so far have been only bothersome, officials fear that they may someday result in serious injury or property loss.
Children attending St. Marianne Catholic School just north of the tracks, for example, passed between cars of the immobile train to attend 8 a.m. classes.
"They get anxious because they don't want to be late, and they climb under and over the train," Pastor H. Gerald McSorley said. "Some parents were passing school books to them through the train. It's a very dangerous situation."
McSorley said the first- through eighth-grade students who attend the school have been told that they shouldn't cross between cars and that they won't be penalized for being tardy.
Six buses hauling children to six schools in the El Rancho Unified School District also were delayed that morning, a district transportation spokeswoman said.
Because the train virtually blocked all north-south traffic in the city, it left the area south of the tracks without emergency services, Courtemarche said. County fire and sheriff's stations are north of the tracks.
"You couldn't get there unless you flew, or went by the freeway and went all the way around," Courtemarche said. "You'd have to leave the city to get to that portion of the city."
Fire or police services could be called in from neighboring cities, but that would waste precious time, Patrick said.
The California Public Utilities Commission prohibits stops of longer than 10 minutes unless there are mechanical problems or other unforeseeable factors.
But city officials say delays have been occurring for years. In 1985, the railroad was fined $6,000 for illegally blocking intersections in Pico Rivera and Santa Fe Springs.
Southern Pacific calls the 22.3-mile stretch of track in question the La Habra branch line. It begins just west of Huntington Park and runs through southeast Los Angeles County before it enters Orange County and ends in Brea, railroad spokesman John Tierney said. He said the delay April 29 was caused by signal problems on Santa Fe Railroad tracks that Southern Pacific trains must cross.
About 16 freight trains, some bound across the country, travel the stretch each day, he said.
"If we find trouble (on the route), we try to go another way," said Tierney, who added that delays are usually caused by train traffic congestion, signal problems or engine failure. "We are not in the habit of arbitrarily blocking crossings for any length of time."
But at least some Pico Rivera residents have trouble believing that.
Mary Bowen said she was delayed more than 30 minutes on May 6 when a train blocked the path to her Pico Rivera home on the north side of the tracks.
"It's especially frequent at rush hour," Bowen said. "I'm afraid one of these days somebody's house is going to burn up. Someone's going to have a heart attack, and they're not going to be able to get to them. It's a life-threatening situation. It's ridiculous."