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Agency aims to cut risk of rail crashes

Metrolink plans to add new gates and barriers and upgrade others to keep pedestrians and cars from being struck by trains at crossings.

August 20, 2007|Rong-Gong Lin II | Times Staff Writer

Two years after an SUV parked on train tracks near Glendale caused a commuter rail crash that killed 11 people, Metrolink officials today will unveil a sweeping effort to improve safety at dozens of rail crossings by creating barriers between trains and automobiles.

The move is intended to address long-standing questions about rail safety in Southern California, where commuter lines share tracks with busy freight systems and intersect with drivers, some of whom race to beat trains.

Southern California has seen a surge in train traffic over the last two decades, much of it carrying freight from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to distribution centers inland. But Metrolink, the region's commuter rail service, has also expanded operations.

"As communities grow and traffic increases, the need to upgrade these crossings becomes more important," said Steve Wylie, Metrolink assistant executive officer.

There has been much debate about how to make rail crossings safer. But planners have long been stymied by the high price of creating so-called grade separations that would allow cars and trains to cross at different levels.

Metrolink's improvements are more modest -- but also less expensive.

They include adding concrete medians, longer gate arms and "four-quadrant gates" that lower across all lanes of traffic. Officials believe the arms will discourage impatient motorists from trying to squeeze through the gates to beat oncoming trains.

The agency will also be installing gates to prevent cars from driving on roads that parallel train tracks.

Juan Manuel Alvarez drove on such a side road in 2005 before he parked his Jeep Cherokee on the tracks 150 feet from a train crossing near Glendale, causing a catastrophic chain-reaction wreck involving two Metrolink trains and a freight train that killed 11 people. After the disaster, Metrolink and Federal Railroad Administration officials began working to develop the safety project.

"These are simple things that put a barrier between" pedestrians, motorists and trains, said Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell. "What we're trying to do is everything we can on our end to make the crossings as safe as absolutely possible."

Previous safety efforts have looked at improving the safety of individual crossings, and some of these measures have already been implemented at some sites. Four-quadrant gates have been installed at crossings around the Metrolink station in Pomona, and officials have built a median at the Mason Avenue crossing in Chatsworth.

So far this year, six people have been killed in train collisions on the 512-mile Metrolink system. Ten were killed in train collisions in 2006. But there have been other fatalities involving Amtrak trains, freight trains and the MTA's Blue Line.

Officials acknowledge the safety measures won't prevent someone with malicious intent from causing another train derailment.

But they say the measures will help prevent accidental pedestrian deaths and discourage motorists from trying to sneak past the gate crossings as trains approach.

"We still have situations where people treat a railroad crossing as a yellow light," Tyrrell said. But she added: "A 450-ton commuter train bearing down on you at 79 mph is not your average intersection."

For some motorists, Tyrrell said, "the temptation to race the train is a little too great. . . . Most of what we see are not criminal acts but just foolhardy ones."

Similar safety efforts are planned for Orange County and Riverside County, where authorities want to extend a commuter line to Perris.

In May, an Orange County grand jury found that the Orange County Transportation Authority had fallen behind on its schedule to improve rail crossings. By 2009, Orange County officials want some Metrolink train lines to run every 30 minutes from 5 a.m. to midnight.

The first phase of the Metrolink safety effort will cost $22 million and will be funded by a combination of federal and state money. It is modeled on a successful "sealed corridor" project that North Carolina rail authorities began about 15 years ago, Wylie said.

Officials there sought to convert 19th-century railroad tracks to accommodate high-speed trains that could run as fast as 110 mph from Washington, D.C. Authorities closed half the crossings and improved gating and fencing systems for the rest.

According to the North Carolina Department of Transportation, adding "four-quadrant gates" to block all lanes of traffic to railroad tracks reduced crossing violations by nearly 86% at one site.

Adding longer gate arms to discourage drivers from maneuvering around them resulted in an 84% reduction in rail crossing violations at another road. Adding median barriers, raised traffic islands that prevent vehicles from crossing into oncoming traffic, reduced rail crossing violations by 77%.

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