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Girls' Deaths Renew Rail Safety Debate

Trains: Some call for more fencing in residential areas despite high cost. Railroads are testing new types of barriers, but officials stress the importance of education.

October 26, 1997|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 95-year-old, hearing-impaired man walking with the aid of a cane is hit by a train and killed as he crosses the tracks in the city of Industry. Two joggers--one of them wearing headphones--are struck by a train and fatally injured as they run alongside the tracks in Corona. And now, two preschoolers are killed by a train in Upland.

The toddlers' deaths last week served as a grim reminder of the dangers railroad tracks pose in a metropolitan region more accustomed to freeways. They also raised questions about whether more can be done to prevent these tragedies.

Despite its image as an "autopia," Los Angeles is the home of the one of the nation's fastest-growing commuter rail services--Metrolink, which runs 106 trains each weekday through its five-county service region at speeds up to 79 mph. The MTA runs another 200 trains a day on the Los Angeles-to-Long Beach Blue Line. Train traffic is expected to grow more once the Alameda Corridor--which will ferry goods from the ports to rail yards near downtown Los Angeles--is built.

Officials say there is only so much they can do to keep people off the tracks and out of harm's way.

Cameras are used to record the faces and license plates of motorists pulling around lowered gates, and tickets are sent to them. Graphic TV ads depict a car being crushed like a soda can by a 450-ton train. Rail safety workers carry their "look, listen and live" message to everyone from kindergartners to truck drivers.

"In the final analysis, all of the education efforts boil down to how do we protect people from themselves," said a frustrated spokesman for Metrolink, which operates the local trains.

But some say more can be done.

Dana Reed, a newly appointed member of the California Transportation Commission and a Metrolink commuter, said he will push for the agency to install fencing along the tracks through every residential neighborhood.

"We fence the freeways," he said. "We fence the aqueduct. We fence the airports. That's just the cost of doing business."

Richard Alarcon, chairman of the Los Angeles City Council's Transportation Committee, successfully pushed for fencing along the tracks throughout his San Fernando Valley district after a spate of deaths there. He, too, believes fencing should be put up along every stretch of track that is easily accessible.

The toddlers' deaths brought Metrolink fatalities--not including suicides--to 41 since the service's inception five years ago.

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There have been 296 collisions between trains and motorists or pedestrians on the Blue Line in the seven years of its operation, including 33 resulting in death.

Nationally, the number of people killed by trains is down. Still, someone is hit by a train every 100 minutes in America.

To reduce accidents at crossings, officials around the country are experimenting with such measures as lowering nets and using barriers that pop up from the pavement to prevent motorists from pulling around lowered gates.

They are also testing sensors to detect vehicles on the tracks and signal the engineer of trouble ahead, improving the chances that the train will stop in time.

In Los Angeles, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is using "photo enforcement" along the 22-mile Blue Line to deter motorists from pulling around lowered gates. A sign warns motorists: "Photo citations issued."

The MTA also is testing pedestrian gates.

"We have lights and bells on poles, but people were ignoring them," said Linda J. Meadow, assistant director of safety compliance. "They were running across the tracks. So we put in swing gates."

She said the mere motion of having to swing open a gate "makes you stop and think and cuts down on what we call risky behavior."

Cameras also are used to videotape activity around the tracks to help the MTA better understand people's behavior.

The MTA plans to begin testing "four-quadrant" gates--with four instead of the usual two gates--at a Blue Line crossing. They are designed to seal off the crossing when a train is coming. Sensors in the pavement detect cars that might become trapped and open the gates to provide an escape.

A new state law was enacted a few years ago, at the MTA's urging, allowing judges to impose fines of up to $271 on motorists who illegally cross tracks. The law also allows judges to send violators to traffic school to watch a film on rail safety.

But rail safety officials complain that some law enforcement officers do not consider railroad violations a high priority and that judges are not imposing the stiffest penalties.

Officials also note that other states have enacted tougher penalties than California's.

After last week's accident in Upland, Metrolink officials said they would install a fence along the tracks where the toddlers died.

Metrolink officials estimate that it would be prohibitively costly to install fences along all 416 miles of its track. "Do you fence busy streets?" asked Metrolink spokesman Peter Hidalgo.

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