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Injuries, Deaths by Train Up in State

Experts cite an increase in rail traffic, people and houses near lines for the 15% rise in 3 years.

June 21, 2004|Sharon Bernstein | Times Staff Writer

David Whitman and Justin Dominguez knew all about the man who was killed while walking along the railroad tracks near their school in Riverside.

But after a couple of weeks of being careful and taking the sidewalk home, the 13-year-olds could no longer resist. So, darting across a busy street one recent afternoon, they crossed the dusty right of way and strolled down the tracks.

Never mind that this was just about where, in David's words, a man "got hit, fell to his knees, got up, got hit again and was thrown 50 feet" just weeks earlier.

As long as there have been locomotives, people have been willing to risk life or limb on the tracks. But while the number of people hurt by trains has been going down nationwide, that's not so in California, where injuries and deaths have gone up 15% in the last three years.

The same day that David and Justin resumed their habit of walking home on the tracks, a boy their age was struck by a train in Simi Valley and badly injured. Later that night, a man who railroad authorities say might have intended to commit suicide was killed on the tracks near Davis.

Contributing to the rise in casualties, experts say, is a combination of increasing population, sprawling development and rising train traffic that is bringing people and train tracks closer together and adding to worries about safety.

"We've tried for some time to get a handle on this problem," said Warren Flatau, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.

Last year, 85 people were killed and 50 injured walking, playing, lying down or engaging in other unauthorized activities on California railroad tracks. Over the last 10 years, more than 1,200 people have been killed or injured in what railroad officials call trespasser accidents -- more than in any other state.

These types of accidents have decreased 15% nationally, since a peak in 1998. Those figures do not include accidents at marked railroad crossings or suicides, which safety advocates say would swell the number of incidents by about a third.

People trespass on railroad tracks for many reasons. Some find the rails romantic and others use them as a shortcut. People have been hit by trains while crawling, jumping, thrill-seeking or playing practical jokes on the tracks, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Some try to escape approaching trains but get their feet or shoes stuck on the tracks.

"We've had instances of adults with headphones jogging along the tracks; we've had people walking their dogs," said David Solow, president of Southern California Metrolink. "It's not a single demographic group."

There's even a myth prevalent among illegal immigrants trying to cross the U.S. border from Mexico that sleeping between two sets of railroad tracks will keep you from being bitten by a snake, said Flatau with the railroad administration.

Eric Jacobson, president of an industry- and government-funded train safety organization, said a big part of the problem is ignorance: More people are living near train tracks and many don't realize how dangerous they are.

"We've got more trains than we've ever had before in the history of the state," Jacobson said. "You've got this huge amount of traffic, and you've got this huge population that's still growing."

Most modern locomotives, he said, are relatively quiet, so people might not hear them coming until it's too late. Trains going 72 mph -- the speed of most Amtrak and Metrolink rail cars -- need up to a mile and a half to stop.

LeeAnn Preece, who analyzes safety data for the Federal Railroad Administration, said it's not uncommon to see jumps in trespasser casualties shortly after new homes are built in areas bisected by old railroad tracks.

"They're building right next to the railroad tracks," she said. "Property that in the past nobody wanted is now being built as housing tracts."

In urban areas as well as new communities, consumers weary of long commutes are snapping up houses and condominiums within walking distance of passenger stations. At the same time, transit agencies, such as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, are building light-rail lines through densely populated neighborhoods.

Along with the houses and rail lines have come more trains. In 2002, trains traveled about 30 million miles in California, up from 21 million miles a decade earlier.

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, once sleepy cousins to the import and export powerhouses on the East Coast, now handle 35% of the nation's cargo. And many of the containers that come in and go out of the harbors make some or all of their overland journeys by rail.

With congested roads and long commutes driving more workers toward public transportation, most of the state's commuter rail lines are also expanding service. Metrolink, for example, is running 142 trains in Southern California each day -- up from 26 when the service started in 1992.

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