LA Times On Metrolink Grade Crossing Safety
The LA Times has published an article on Metrolink’s safety record, charting the 244 grade crossings deaths on its far-flung network over the past 15 years. On average, that works out to more than one a month.
While it is true that Metrolink has suffered safety lapses, most notoriously the case of a train engineer who was texting on a cell phone when he should have been paying attention to trackside signals at Chatsworth, it is also true that the agency has to operate on a shoestring budget. The article complains bitterly about a corporate culture that supposedly prioritizes ridership growth over grade crossing safety, comparing it to MTA. That agency is far better funded precisely because it has higher ridership. Metrolink is caught in a Catch-22.
The article also cites the example of a confused elderly lady driver who made a right turn at the Buena Vista Street intersection in Burbank. When the crossing gate came down on her car, she panicked and stepped on the accelerator. Tragically, she was killed in the ensuing train crash. Metrolink concluded it was a clear case of driver error and have made only minimal changes to the intersection in response to the fatality. Without additional public funding, there’s not a whole lot it can do.
Up in the SF peninsula, Caltrain has a program for rail safety enforcement, but this public outreach effort hasn’t made a significant dent in the grim statistics. It seems that in addition to suicidal persons, there will always be a small contingent of motorists who either don’t know how to behave at railroad grade crossings or flout the rules.
What both commuter rail services have run up against is that the only proven way to eliminate or at least massively reduce grade crossing fatalities is full grade separation plus sturdy fences for the rail corridor.
Caltrans did promise to grade separate the aforementioned Buena Vista Street in Burbank against the single rail track in the context of a project to widen I-5, but that’s just one one grade crossing among hundreds. Elsewhere in Southern California, a large number of grade crossings were eliminated or had their rail traffic sharply reduced by the Alameda Corridor project. More are either planned or under construction in the context of the Alameda Corridor East project in the San Gabriel Valley. For its part, OCTA is lobbying Congress to close a funding gap for 19 new grade separations on the BNSF Transcon line in Orange County, a critical artery for getting goods in and out of the LA and Long Beach harbors.
One of the reasons the California HSR project is so expensive is that it will feature all-new fully grade separated tracks. In the SF peninsula, part of the Central Valley and in the Lancaster-Anaheim section of the Metrolink service network, the starter line will run immediately next to existing regional and commuter as well as freight trains. While AB3034, the bill made law by the passage of prop 1A(2008) last November, does not explicitly require CHSRA to grade separate any but the HSR tracks, also including adjacent tracks for legacy services should be a high priority wherever that is technically and economically feasible and, it is not already done or planned in another context.
Voters/taxpayers should demand nothing less, even if it doing so entails exercising strictly limited and generous eminent domain against a relatively small numbers of businesses and home owners. This applies in Fullerton just as much as it does in the SF peninsula, Fresno, Bakersfield and elsewhere in the state. The benefits extend well beyond safety, e.g. to rail corridor capacity, reduced dependence on oil in the transportation sector plus the elimination of train horns and warning bells.