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Railroad Safety Redoubled

As O.C. records its sixth pedestrian death on the rails this year, efforts are intensified. Deanna Austin leads the fight to keep the lines clear of squatters, drunks, taggers, daredevils and unsupervised kids.

November 08, 2000|MONTE MORIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cruising Orange County's busiest railways, Deanna Austin knows from experience that there's no difference between the right side of the tracks and the wrong side. Either one can get you killed.

As the Orange County Transportation Authority battles a steep increase this year in the number of pedestrians killed by trains, the lethal nature of trains was underscored only weeks ago when the county recorded its sixth pedestrian death Oct. 22.

The death of a man walking along tracks in Yorba Linda came less than a week after the death of an apparently suicidal man who assumed a three-point football crouch on a railway near Edison Field and awaited an oncoming Amtrak train.

Pedestrian-vs.-train incidents--intentional or not--account for more than one-third of all train accidents statewide, and have increased by 18% in the last six years, according to the California Public Utilities Commission. In Orange County, pedestrian deaths on the train tracks have been cyclical. Last year, the county recorded one death, the year before that, none. In 1997 there were four.

It is Austin's job, along with contracted sheriff's deputies, to keep vigil along the 87 miles of tracks that cut across Orange County. It falls to her to roust the trespassers, warn off the kids playing near the tracks and discourage graffiti vandals who are drawn to the rail lines.

As the person who maintains trackside property for the county, 29-year-old Austin has squared off with scores of homeless squatters, hoods, staggering drunks, paint-splattered taggers, daredevil teens and unsupervised children. She's also stumbled on the remains of odd rituals, uncovered the hiding places of fugitives and collected hundreds of flattened pennies.

Through it all, Austin said she's continually amazed at the trespassers' willingness to court heavy fines and disaster--whether it's sitting along the ties guzzling booze, hot-wiring railroad construction tractors or trying to race a 450-ton passenger train.

"People just don't understand," Austin said. "We've got signs up everywhere telling them it's dangerous out here and they're trespassing, but they still keep coming."

The transportation authority, which helps fund Metrolink, owns rights of way along tracks used by Metrolink, Amtrak and private freight lines. In the last year, Austin has had to deal with vandals who hot-wired a construction bucket loader, flattened rail signals and tried to scoop up a length of rail line. She has battled a rash of graffiti on railway overpasses and tunnels and has cleared countless forts and shanties from the shoulders of the railroad tracks.

While making her rounds one recent morning in Mission Viejo, Austin yelled out to a crew clearing brush to move away from the tracks when she heard the telltale "tinging" in the rails. The train was still far from sight, but bore down on the dusty clearing in a matter of seconds, sounded its horn and flashed past at 90 mph.

"People," she said, "don't realize how fast they move."

In recent years, Austin has seen plenty of monuments to just how fast the trains move, small shrines of candles and course crosses propped by the tracks at locations like 'Dead Man's Crossing' in Santa Ana--where the tracks cross Lyon Street--and along the beach in San Clemente. The most unusual offering came during a period of bomb threats when a plastic sack was plopped on the middle of the tracks by a woman who had parked her car nearby. Austin said workers and police approached the bag cautiously.

"There was a cow's heart and some other weird stuff," Austin said of the bag's contents. "One of her loved ones had been killed by a train and she was doing some voodoo or something to get back at the train."

Transportation officials said they have no explanation for the increase in pedestrian deaths. Still, a transportation authority spokesman said agencies were working to prevent incidents by contracting with the Sheriff's Department for help from undercover officers and by initiating education programs for children. Transportation authority spokesman George Urch said other efforts involved fencing some right-of-way areas.

Indeed, when a homeward-bound schoolgirl was killed in May--a wrenching accident that brought shock and sorrow to the Santa Ana neighborhood where the 12-year-old lived--city officials launched a program aimed at educating residents on how to cross the tracks safely.

Austin's job keeps her on the front line of safety. Like the yardmen of old who prowled rail yards in search of troublemakers, she cruises mile after mile of track in her pickup and in a Hy-Rail--a truck outfitted with railroad wheels. Her primary duty is ensuring that the tracks and rights of way are not obstructed by vegetation and debris, but she is frequently one of the first to stumble on trespassers.

The danger of such confrontations was highlighted in August, when an undercover sheriff's deputy shot and killed a man who had a hunting knife. The confrontation reportedly began when the deputy tried to cite the man for trespassing.

"You never know who you're going to come across," said Sgt. Ken Chism, of the transportation authority's police services. "The people you deal with out there aren't the most upstanding citizens."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Death on the Tracks

Six pedestrians have been killed in Orange County by trains this year. Four deaths were considered accidents and two have been classified as suicides.

Source: Times reports

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