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Santa Ana Tracks Still Cause Worry

School officials say few improvements have been made to rail crossings in an area where four people have died in four years.

October 22, 2003|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

Santa Ana school officials said they are increasingly concerned that little has been done to improve safety at rail crossings in a bustling residential area -- a stretch of track where four people have been killed in the last four years.

One of the three crossings -- a double set of tracks at McFadden Avenue where a 12-year-old girl was killed two years ago -- was identified as one of the state's most dangerous by the Federal Railroad Administration in a 2001 survey of accidents. Half a mile away at South Lyon Street, a motorist was killed in September when a Metrolink train slammed into his car.

A school administrator in Santa Ana said he has spent more than a year trying to get improvements such as pedestrian bridges over the tracks, additional warning signs and more notice of approaching trains. City officials, meanwhile, are conducting their own study to determine what can be done to make the crossings safer.

Each day, as many as 45 trains at speeds up to 90 mph roar through the densely populated neighborhood. Residents walk across the tracks carrying children and heavy bundles or pushing strollers. Nearby, school buses pick up and drop off children. Until recently, some students from nearby Kennedy Elementary School crawled through a hole in a gate behind an apartment complex to scurry across the tracks.

"There are no gates, no fences, and that is where kids go, where there is open space," said Jim Miyashiro, the school district's police chief. "We are very concerned."

Jack E. Oakes, director of the school district's Career Development Center, which provides vocational training to adults and teens, has written to Metrolink and to the Federal Railroad Administration for more than a year seeking improvements.

Among other things, he has asked for increased warning times at the crossings at McFadden Avenue, South Lyon and Ritchey streets. "I would be devastated if any of my students or faculty were hurt," Oakes said.

Initially he ignored the train accidents, he said, but he was "shaken" one day as he drove over the Ritchey Street crossing and noticed an advancing Metrolink train 150 feet away.

Since 2000, there have been 25 accidents at Orange County crossings involving trains, motor vehicles and pedestrians.

In the last three years, there have been eight deaths -- half of them at the Santa Ana crossings.

Responding to one of Oakes' letters before the most recent death, Metrolink Public Projects Manager Ron Mathieu said, "We have tested and verified that the crossing signal and equipment are working as they were designed to work."

Oakes continued to write, however, questioning whether different standards should be used for an urban community such as Santa Ana.

As a result of Oakes' letters, the Federal Railroad Administration investigated. But it also determined that federal safety standards for warnings and maintenance were being met at the three crossings.

In an interview Tuesday, Mathieu said Metrolink would change the warning times if it received a formal request from Santa Ana. City Engineer George Alvarez, however, said he was unaware the city could even make such a request.

The PUC has requested federal funds on behalf of the city to improve the Ritchey Street crossing with a pedestrian gate, he said.

City officials hope applications will follow for similar improvements at the South Lyon and McFadden street crossings.

Times staff writer Dan Weikel contributed to this report.

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