At a quarter of its normal speed, the Trooper Express, a blue-and-white Metrolink train, chugged between the Sylmar and Burbank stations Thursday, its eight cars empty but for three hawk-eyed police officers and the engineer.
Their mission: to apprehend motorists racing through rail crossings to beat approaching locomotives. Within two hours, the sting netted 10 motorists and six pedestrians, including four youngsters who picked the wrong day to chuck rocks at trains.
When offenders were spotted, officers radioed to patrol cars hidden near crossings. Most were ticketed for "gridlock" violations, when motorists stopped their vehicles on the tracks while waiting for traffic lights to change. Individual fines went up to $271.
The sting operation is part of a nationwide effort to highlight rail safety and reduce the number of collisions, injuries and fatalities at crossings. Metrolink runs stings about every six months along different rail segments, targeting crossings where warning signals are notoriously ignored.
"When those red lights start flashing, you're supposed to stop--immediately," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Steve Smith, riding shotgun in the train.
Peering through plexiglass windows in the cockpit-like compartment, Smith said many northeast San Fernando Valley residents are unused to the Metrolink passenger trains that roar through crossings at an average speed of 79 m.p.h.
"These trains are not like the old freights," Smith said. "These trains are a lot quieter and much, much faster. Cars still decide they can beat the train across the tracks."
Too often, it's the last decision the person makes. Metrolink officials say crossing accidents are 30 times more likely to result in death or severe injury than highway accidents because heavier trains require more than a mile to stop when traveling faster than 50 m.p.h.
Statistics from 1993 show that 471 railroad accidents resulted in 162 deaths and 129 injuries in California. Many of the deaths were attributed to trespasser incidents.
At the Sunland Boulevard crossing, two patrol cars parked in front of Myung's Liquor store awaited the train's arrival. Another patrol car was parked beside the tracks, obscured by a large oleander. Just a few seconds before the warning lights began flashing, a large white catering truck stopped on top of the tracks.
"It happens all the time; people just stop right there," Los Angeles Police Officer Steve Dell said while watching one of the other patrol cars pull the truck over. "Imagine if the train was doing 80 and he had done that."
Engineer Danny O'Connell, a veteran brakeman and conductor, has hit seven vehicles in his 17-year career. "A few of those were fatals. What really worries me is when the cars get stacked up at the crossings," he said, eyeing a man who walked from the back of a warehouse up close to the tracks.
"You just don't know if they're going to move. They've got 15 seconds to get out of the way when the lights flash and the gate goes down. And then, there's nothing I can do."