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Mourners Call for Railroad Safety Devices

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With more than 100 big rigs and tow trucks parked along the street outside the Oxnard Baptist Church, friends and family came to say goodbye Wednesday to 31-year-old Rodney Allen McCarty, who was killed after his truck was struck by a train.

Grieving the sudden loss of a man known for his warmth and charm, many asked if his life could have been saved if the railroad crossing where McCarty was killed had been marked by warning devices.

“I don’t have a doubt that he’d still be here today if there were lights or something there,” said Tony Del Valle, a tow-truck driver from Ventura who sat in his yellow truck during the funeral. “It wasn’t like he wanted to get hit, it just happened too fast. . . . There was just nothing he could do.”

McCarty’s younger brother Brian has called for safeguards at the crossing. He too believes that if warning lights or bars had been in place at the crossing, his brother--who worked for the family trucking company--would still be alive.

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“There’s been other people killed at that crossing, and I don’t want anybody to get killed again,” he said.

McCarty was killed Saturday morning after a Seattle-bound Amtrak passenger liner struck his semitruck at an unguarded private railroad crossing east of Hitch Boulevard at California 118 near Moorpark.

McCarty was delivering a bulldozer to a nearby farm when the accident occurred. The force of the collision ignited a fuel fire and dragged the heavy truck more than 1,000 feet before the train stopped.

Another man, 28-year-old Jose Antonio Aguirre of Moorpark, was injured in the accident after he was struck by debris from the truck while working on a nearby bridge.

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He spent several days recovering at Columbia Los Robles Hospital and was released Tuesday, a nurse said.

None of the 391 passengers on board the train was injured.

While warning lights or bars may have prevented the fatal accident, private landowners are not required to install anything other than a stop sign and railroad crossing marker at crossings that lead to their property.

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Union Pacific, which owns the railroad, can require landowners to install lights and bars, which cost between $150,000 and $200,000, if they believe the crossing is particularly hazardous.

But those costs, say some, are too much for landowners--whatever the risks may be. “For a farmer, that kind of money is hard to come by,” said Raymond Toohey, an engineer with the Public Utilities Commission.

The number of collisions between automobiles and trains throughout the state has remained fairly constant over the last several years.

Of 183 collisions between trains and vehicles in California during 1996, 154 were at guarded crossings, resulting in nine deaths and 41 injuries, according to PUC statistics. While only 29 were at private crossings, those accidents resulted in four deaths and nine injuries.

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Though fewer collisions occur at private, unguarded crossings, their incidence is striking when considering the relatively small amount of traffic they handle.

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Where a guarded railroad crossing in Simi Valley, for instance, might have tens of thousands of cars crossing each day, an unguarded crossing leading to private land may have only a few.

“No doubt about it, there are a lot of accidents at private crossings,” said Ted Turpin, an accident investigator at the National Transportation Safety Board. “And most of time those accidents happen because people are trying to beat the train or else they get hung up on the tracks.”

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Though some are calling for a closer review of policies regarding safety devices such lights and bars at private crossings, landowners and businesses that use them say their costs are prohibitive.

After an Amtrak passenger train killed three farm workers as they tried to cross the tracks less than a mile away from where McCarty was killed, farm manager Craig Underwood, who leases the land near Moorpark, looked into installing safety guards.

But at about $200,000, he said it was better just to have workers use another entrance that does not cross the railroad tracks.

“That’s a lot of money and it wasn’t something that the owner wanted to pay for,” Underwood said. “We have another entrance anyway, so we just told all the employees to start using that one.”

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Despite the cost, Naj Meshkati, a professor of civil and industrial engineering at USC, said all crossings should be guarded regardless of whether they handle one or 10,000 cars a day.

“It’s really to the benefit of the railroads and public if there are safeguards,” he said. “In the long run, when you tally up everything like litigation costs, it’s more cost effective to pay for the crossing guards.”

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Though many people have been quick to say that fatal accidents like McCarty’s could have been avoided if the drivers had only been more patient, Meshkati said studies have concluded that many accidents happen because people have difficulty estimating the speed of trains.

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A recent study commissioned by the Canadian government found that people aren’t so much trying to beat a train, but fail to correctly estimate its distance and speed.

“It’s something that human beings have a very hard time perceiving,” Meshkati said. “Because of that, just trying to educate people to stop isn’t going to be enough.”

Correspondent Nick Green contributed to this story.


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