The fatal crash Wednesday between a Metrolink train and a dump truck revives questions long raised here and across the nation about the safety of rail crossings at a time when many municipalities are pursuing more elaborate transit networks.
"Railroads in this country are coming back like gangbusters," said Gilbert E. Carmichael, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration. ". . . We would not dare build a street across an airport runway because a plane can't stop and we should eliminate these crossings because a train can't stop."
In California in 1990, there were 174 accidents involving trains and vehicles at public railroad crossings. Another 21 occurred at private crossings. The accidents claimed 31 lives in that year, the most recent one for which the state Public Utilities Commission has complete statistics.
Wednesday's crash occurred at a private, unguarded crossing--a route that lacks the gates, bells or street markings that are common at most public rail crossings.
The Del Sur Street crossing, where the accident occurred, is one of seven private crossings lacking precautionary gates and warning devices, said Richard Stanger, executive director of the Southern California Regional Rail Authority.
Metrolink has a total of 111 rail crossings on its four lines. Of those, 11 are private rail crossings, intended for limited use.
Since private crossings are supposed to be used by a small number of travelers, the Public Utilities Commission, which oversees train safety, requires that they be marked with a stop sign on each side of the crossing, as well a sign indicating that the site is a private railroad crossing, said Lou Cluster, a PUC senior transportation engineer.
But the Del Sur Street crossing had no warning lights, barriers or pavement markings where the driver approached. Cluster said it was unclear whether there might have been signs that were obliterated in the crash.
When truck driver Jaime Farias, 37, of Los Angeles arrived at the Del Sur Street crossing Wednesday morning, it was not unfamiliar territory to him, officials said. Investigators said they had not determined whether the five-ton dump truck, heading toward a city maintenance yard, had stalled on the tracks or if Farias was trying to outrun the train, which was traveling at 77 m.p.h.
The train, which dragged parts of the truck for more than half a mile, was being propelled by a locomotive at the back of the train. This "push-pull" operation, in which the locomotive alternates between leading and pushing the train, is sometimes used for commuter lines, rail officials said.
But some rail experts and safety proponents speculated Wednesday that it may have led to confusion on the part of the truck driver.
"Folks looking down the track have great difficulty determining whether the train is coming or going," said Leila Osina, executive director of Operation Life Saver, a train safety education group. "People who aren't used to seeing it can't tell the direction the train is going in and they can't judge the speed of the train."
Trying to avert accidents such as this one, Metrolink officials launched a safety campaign in the weeks before opening the rail line a month ago.
For Metrolink officials, it was a bid to avoid the types of accidents that plagued the Metro Blue Line when it started service in July, 1990. Seven people have been killed and 40 others injured in more than 100 accidents at crossings along that 22-mile line.
Determined to provide Metrolink with a better start, transit officials sent speakers to local schools to educate children. They mailed out 1 million flyers to homes near the lines, spelling out the dangers.
And initially, they hired 40 crossing guards and arranged to have police officers posted to snare motorists who attempted to outrun trains at crossings. Their efforts, however, focused primarily on public crossings.
"We need to look at closing (private crossings) and attempt to eliminate them," Stanger said. "A person was killed and that's a tragedy. However, he shouldn't have been using that crossing at all. He basically turned into it without stopping and just went right into the right of way. This was unavoidable."
For private crossings, the $150,000 cost of safety devices--such as gates and flashers--can be prohibitive, officials said. They say that eliminating such crossings may be the best solution for preventing deaths like that of Farias.
Meanwhile, officials announced Wednesday that the Del Sur Street private crossing will be permanently closed.