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Train Deaths Unlikely to Bring Remedies

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Amtrak, Santa Fe Railroad and state railway safety officials, reflecting on the deaths of two women who were struck by a freight train at the Del Mar depot Wednesday, said the public shouldn’t expect a change in operations in the wake of the tragedy.

There is no state law regulating the speed of a freight train as it passes in front of a commuter rail station’s platform, even if it is crowded with people, they said Friday.

And freight trains may come at just about any time, they said.

Even as officials study railway safety and review the deaths of persons struck by trains, railway safety engineers with the state’s Public Utilities Commission say they’re not sure what could have been done--except for fences--to have prevented Wednesday’s accident.

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Reduced to its most basic components, they say, the incident occurred because a woman tripped on the railroad tracks, where there was no authorized pedestrian crossing and where she had no business being, and she couldn’t be pulled to safety in time by would-be rescuers--including a second woman who died trying.

Amtrak spokesman Art Lloyd added, “These people were wrong in what they did. Unfortunately, fatally wrong. They had no business crossing the tracks at an illegal crossing.”

Killed were Usha Waney, a 47-year-old La Jolla clothing designer, and Roberta Halpern, 44, of Encinitas, who was a cancer researcher. Waney and Halpern were among a group of persons who had parked on the west side of the train depot and, believing they heard the approach of their Los Angeles-bound Amtrak, hurried to cross the tracks where there was no improved pedestrian path so they could be on the depot’s loading platform.

Waney tripped on the rail and fell across it, apparently knocking herself unconscious as a freight train--not her Amtrak passenger train--suddenly appeared around a curve from the south, about 14 minutes ahead of the Amtrak.

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Halpern and her husband of three months, Lee Kaiser, tried unsuccessfully to pull Waney to safety, but the freight train, traveling about 45 m.p.h., was on them in about seven seconds, Kaiser estimated later.

Waney was run over by the train and died instantly; Halpern was struck and died later that day of her injuries. Kaiser hurt his ankle as he fell backward to escape the locomotive.

The women were the fifth and sixth pedestrians killed by trains in San Diego County since early October.

While confusion about the identify of the approaching train clearly led to the accident, Santa Fe Railroad and Amtrak officials note that freights have no set schedules and persons shouldn’t try to anticipate when it’s safe to cross a track at an unregulated crossing.

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“Would you go out into the middle of the runway at Lindbergh Field just because a plane wasn’t due in then?” Amtrak’s Lloyd asked rhetorically.

Indeed, freights running through Del Mar at that time of morning--about 6:30 a.m.--were rarities until about six weeks ago, when overnight track repair began between Del Mar and San Diego.

Normally, said Santa Fe trainmaster Tom Graham in San Diego, one freight train, with as many as 70 cars, would leave San Diego between 1 and 3 a.m., when the line was free of Amtrak traffic and rail commuters.

But, because of the maintenance work, the tracks have been closed from about 10:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. for six weeks or so, Graham said. Now, the freights pull out of San Diego anywhere between 5:30 and 9 a.m., sometimes between regularly scheduled Amtrak trains.

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Wednesday’s freight, he said, was scheduled to pull over on a siding in Oceanside to allow the faster Amtrak from the south to overtake it.

Speed limits on trains are set by the Federal Railroad Administration but are essentially functions of the track’s condition and maintenance, officials said. Between National City and Sorrento Valley, passenger trains can go up to 79 m.p.h., and freights can go 55 m.p.h. Between Sorrento Valley and Santa Ana, Amtrak can pick up to 90 m.p.h., but freights are still limited to 55 m.p.h., said Chuck Conners, a safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board in Los Angeles.

Although municipalities can ask the state Public Utilities Commission to set slower train speeds through their boundaries, none in San Diego County have, officials said.

Speeds are lower at various sections along the route--including a 45 m.p.h. limit at the curve as trains approach the Del Mar station from the south.

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But, officials said, there is no extraordinary speed limit on trains that pass by passenger stations without stopping.

The one exception is a state law that requires that, if a passenger train is stopped at a depot, a freight must stop short of the depot--even if there is a double set of tracks that would otherwise allow it to pass, noted Jack Rich, a transportation supervisor for the railroad operations and safety branch of the PUC.

Even if there were a speed limit, some officials aren’t sure it would do much good, depending on the circumstances. “If you were to get hit by a 20-m.p.h. train, it still wouldn’t make much difference,” said Lou Cluster, a civil engineer assigned to the PUC’s railroad safety branch in Los Angeles.

Even if Waney had fallen at that same spot in front of her Amtrak train as it pulled to a stop, she probably would have been struck, he added.

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“A northbound passenger train at the Del Mar station stops far north of the depot building, far north of the point of impact where the women were killed,” Cluster said. And, because the smaller Amtrak train can brake more quickly than the heavier freight, it would still pass relatively quickly in front of the loading platform before finally stopping, 200 feet north of it.

“The distinction of a freight train going through that station and not stopping, and a passenger train that would stop, is not as significant as people might think,” he said.

The multi-jurisdictional Los Angeles-San Diego (LOSSAN) Rail Corridor Agency is studying the issue of railway safety, especially the deaths of pedestrians along the railway right-of-way, said Joanna Capelle, aide to LOSSAN’s executive director, Sharon Greene.

Coincidentally, a rail safety task force previously had scheduled, for next Thursday in Carlsbad, an “Operation Life Saver” training session to inform public and private agencies how to better educate the public about danger along railroad tracks, she said.

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Among the issues being discussed by LOSSAN’s safety task force, she said, is installation of fencing along railroad tracks and the posting of warning signs in areas of greater potential pedestrian traffic--such as at the Del Mar station, she said.

And, as railroad officials note, rights of way are private property and persons who are killed by trains were trespassing to begin with.


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