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Rail Deaths Spur Drive for Safety : Transportation: Agency plans to elevate or lower tracks at 92 street-level crossings on L.A.-to-San Diego route.

TIMES URBAN AFFAIRS WRITER

In the wake of recent train-related deaths, the agency overseeing passenger service between Los Angeles and San Diego will seek federal funds to elevate or lower the tracks at all 92 street-level rail crossings--an ambitious project expected to take 10 to 20 years.

A resolution supporting the $736-million project along the 128-mile rail line is expected to be approved Wednesday at a meeting of the Los Angeles-San Diego Rail Corridor Agency, said Sharon Greene, the agency’s executive director.

At the same meeting, officials will present a safety task force’s recommendations for greater police enforcement of no-trespassing regulations, better warning signs and a media education blitz to prevent further tragedies.

“There have been more incidents than we ever anticipated,” Greene said. “Safety projects have to be made a priority.”

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Railroad officials said 34 pedestrians were killed and 63 people were injured by trains statewide in 1989. Another 44 motorists died and 100 more were injured in 244 accidents in California involving automobiles and trains.

In Orange County, two men were killed in separate incidents in November--one by an Amtrak train that clipped the construction lift he was working on near the tracks, and the other when he was struck as he walked across the tracks in front of another Amtrak train.

The latest tragedy occurred Wednesday when one woman was killed in Del Mar after she tripped on the track in front of a freight train, and a second woman was killed trying to help her.

In October alone, four people died on tracks just within San Diego County. Although the proposal to end street-level crossings comes soon after the spate of rail-related fatalities, its timing is coincidental.

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Greene said that the plan to physically separate rail service from other traffic at street level is primarily intended to increase train speeds and improve car traffic flow. But she added that improving safety is also a major benefit.

“The reason we want to do this involves a combination of speed, safety and compatibility with the community,” Greene said.

Passage of Wednesday’s resolution, Greene said, will launch a lobbying effort in Sacramento and Washington to obtain federal funds. But there are serious doubts that Congress, wrestling with a massive federal deficit, has an appetite for new, costly programs.

The current reality is that through the state Public Utilities Commission, a maximum of $15 million a year is spent on grade separations statewide, with no single project eligible to receive more than $5 million in one year, officials said. Grade separations cost about $8 million each.

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So Greene and other rail officials are pinning their hopes on a major review of transportation projects in Congress due by September, 1991, when current program authorizations expire. The U.S. Department of Transportation has proposed selection of three “demonstration” corridors, with federal funds to total $1 billion over four years.

There are now only a handful of grade separations along the so-called Lossan Corridor, including one at Highland Avenue in Fullerton and another at State College Boulevard in Anaheim.

The Rail Safety Awareness Task Force, which Greene headed, has scheduled an “Operation Lifesaver” speakers training program that will blitz communities with educational materials about train safety.

The task force is developing an international symbol for use in a new sign program to reduce trespassing. It has notified “911" dispatchers of appropriate emergency telephone numbers for the railroads. And it has asked law enforcement agencies to increase enforcement of “No trespassing” regulations along the corridor.

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According to a task force survey, 16 of 17 existing rail agencies in the United States and Canada use no-trespassing signs of some form. Three use bilingual signs, and 10 use international symbols, mainly for crossings. Colors and wording, however, are not standardized.

Few rail agencies fence off their rights of way. If they do, it’s mostly near stations, according to the survey, which also found a wide variety of locomotive lighting requirements. What’s more, the survey found discrepancies in the use of whistles and in-house law enforcement staffing. Although whistles are generally sounded at all crossings, six restrict whistle blowing in some areas, with the most severe limits around the Chicago area because of proximity to residential areas. Twelve of the agencies surveyed have their own police force.


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