Southeast residents can now file complaints about lengthy train delays through a regional monitoring strategy developed by the United Neighborhoods Organization.
Organizers of the grass-roots activist group say Southern Pacific Transportation Co. has reduced train delays since August, when railroad officials heard testimony about the problem during an angry UNO meeting of more than 200 people.
Organization officials are encouraged by the railroad's cooperation, but set up the regional monitoring system to make sure train delays are not shifted from one area to another.
Southern Pacific has shown a "serious professional attitude in addressing the specific problems brought to their attention by UNO and local government," said Dan Razo, co-chairman of UNO-Southeast.
'Some Honest Efforts'
Sister Elvira Zozaya, coordinator of United Neighborhoods Organization's citizen monitoring project, added: "The effort is not complete, but they have made some honest efforts toward improving the situation."
Meanwhile, arraignment was delayed this week for two Southern Pacific trainmen charged in the Aug. 19 two-hour train delay in the unincorporated Florence-Firestone area. A state Public Utilities Code prohibits trains from standing in intersections for more than 10 minutes except for mechanical problems or other emergencies.
S. James Otero, a lawyer for the railroad, said Southern Pacific is seeking dismissal of the misdemeanor charge of illegally blocking an intersection, filed against dispatcher Roy McRae. Otero contends McRae was charged under a PUC provision that applies only to corporations.
Conductor William Gonsalves faces two misdemeanor charges for allegedly refusing the requests of sheriff's deputies and fire officials to clear the intersection. The trainmen face $1,000 fines and up to one year in jail for each charge.
Chronic train delays of up to an hour have interfered with Southeast streets for years, causing massive traffic jams, blocking emergency vehicles from responding to calls and forcing children to climb between railroad cars to get to school.
Since 1984, Southern Pacific has been charged with more than 30 counts of illegally blocking intersections and has been fined more than $15,000.
The Florence-Firestone delay is the only one since June for which the railroad has been prosecuted. UNO officials say Southern Pacific's new attitude is evident not only in reduced train delays, but in better communication with Santa Fe railroad, the resumption of train safety programs in Southeast schools and the decoupling of delayed trains so that traffic can resume.
The City of Pico Rivera had filed a complaint with the PUC against Southern Pacific, but has agreed to suspend the complaint for six months after seeing the railroad's recent progress, city officials said.
"We want to be a good corporate neighbor," Otero said. "It doesn't benefit anyone to have a delay at an intersection. . . . The concerns of (the United Neighborhoods Organization) are in lots of instances legitimate and we want to address those concerns."
Southern Pacific worked with the United Neighborhoods Organization to develop the regional monitoring plan, which was announced at an UNO-Southeast meeting last week in Norwalk. The organization is distributing citizen train monitoring forms, endorsed by the PUC, in city halls and churches in the Southeast. The forms are available in Norwalk, Pico Rivera, Bell, Santa Fe Springs, Maywood and Huntington Park.
The forms include blanks for notations on date and time of the delay, the train identification number, unusual circumstances such as children climbing between train cars, and whether the train was uncoupled so that traffic could resume.
Residents are asked to mail the forms to the United Neighborhoods Organization, which will forward copies to Southern Pacific, the PUC, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner and officials of the city in which the delay occurred.
UNO organizers credit Reiner's commitment to prosecuting Southern Pacific as a crucial factor in the railroad's recent efforts to reduce train delays. The charges against the two Southern Pacific trainmen in September were the first to be filed by the district attorney's office against employees of a railroad.
Greg Thompson, special assistant to Reiner, told the UNO meeting last week that the district attorney's office has since sent a letter to Southern Pacific corporate officials, warning them that they are the next to be charged if the train delays persist.
"It isn't simply a public relations problem for the railroad. It's a problem of criminal liability," Thompson said in an interview. "That puts teeth in what is initially a public relations problem."
The district attorney's office can use the citizen complaint forms as tip sheets to investigate whether to file charges for train delays, Thompson said.