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Putting Stop to Rail Crossing Deaths

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Connecticut, road sensors are being tested that detect when a vehicle is caught on railroad tracks and signal a locomotive more than a mile away. If the engineer fails to apply the brakes, the device would stop the train automatically.

In Illinois, giant nets are being dropped in front of drivers when a train approaches.

And in Southern California, a push is underway to install signs to combat “second train phenomenon"--a problem caused by motorists who pull around lowered gates after a train passes, unaware that another train may be coming from the opposite direction.

These and other efforts by government officials aim to stop people who refuse to stop themselves at railroad crossings--even in the face of flashing red lights, clanging bells, 94-decibel horns and television ads depicting trains crushing cars like tin cans. The issue has drawn renewed attention in the wake of Monday night’s fatal train wreck, in which Amtrak’s City of New Orleans crashed into a tractor-trailer truck south of Chicago.

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Federal investigators at the accident scene Wednesday in Bourbonnais, Ill., were examining evidence, including muddy tire tracks, that may indicate whether truck driver John Stokes tried to weave around the crossing gates.

Stokes, 58, told investigators shortly after the accident, which killed 11 people on the train, that he did not see the flashing lights or the oncoming locomotive until he was on the tracks, officials said. But the train’s engineer, who was badly injured in the wreck, insisted that the gates already were down when the truck entered the crossing.

“The engineer said he saw the light flashing, he saw the barriers down and then he saw the truck stop and try to get around it,” said Amtrak Chairman Tommy G. Thompson, who is also governor of Wisconsin.

The dangers posed at highway-rail crossings is an especially important issue in the Los Angeles region, where more than 100 people ranging in age from 18 months to 95 years old have been killed by trains this decade--more than the death toll from the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

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In Orange County, five people have been killed in their cars by Metrolink trains since the commuter service began in March 1994.

Hoping to keep people from endangering themselves, officials of Metrolink, which runs 128 trains a day across 399 crossings in the six-county region, are testing surveillance cameras that catch gate runners and mail them tickets.

One of the test sites is in Santa Ana at the Chestnut Avenue rail crossing near Grand Avenue. Motorists caught running the red light there after April 1 will be issued a $104 ticket.

The cameras, encased in bulletproof containers, photograph the faces and license plates of motorists pulling around lowered gates.

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“Photo enforcement is really an area we can use more to get people’s attention and change their behavior,” federal Railroad Administrator Jolene Molitoris said.

Concern among public officials about such carelessness is growing as Los Angeles undergoes a rail renaissance with such projects as the Alameda Corridor--a rail link from the harbor area to near downtown.

“We’re trying everything we can to get people to stop running into our trains,” said Lou Hubaud, director of systems safety for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

One of the most promising safety measures under study, federal officials said Wednesday, is a high-tech system installed last year in West Mystic, Conn.

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The system includes sensors in the ground that warn the locomotive engineer--a green light turns to yellow--when a car is caught on the tracks. If the engineer fails to act within eight seconds, the train automatically brakes.

“It is producing the results we want,” said the project manager, Stephen R. Szegedy of the Connecticut Department of Transportation, who parked his car on the tracks during a test last summer and watched a train stop 500 feet away. But the project has yet to be put to a real life-and-death test.

One barrier to expanding the system to other crossings is the $500,000-plus cost. Additionally, experts noted that the system will not save a motorist trapped in the crossing when a train is only half a mile or so away.

“We travel the length of a football field every three seconds,” said Peter Hidalgo, a spokesman for Metrolink.

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The Connecticut system includes so-called quad gates: four gates instead of the usual two to make it more difficult for motorists to pull around the blockades. In this case, the additional gates block off the crossing entirely.

In Illinois, nets made out of steel cable and measuring 3 feet high and 25 feet wide have been installed at three crossings between Chicago and St. Louis. The nets, held up by towers, are lowered onto the street as a train approaches.

Officials hope the nets not only will stop out-of-control drivers but that they also will make it virtually impossible for motorists to get onto the tracks when a train is approaching.

“We call them drag nets,” said Jerry Isenburg of the Illinois Department of Transportation, noting that the nets are based on the concept used on aircraft carriers to stop jets in an emergency. The nets also are similar to those used to stop wrong-way drivers on the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago.

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One drawback--recently demonstrated when a truck slammed into one of the nets--is that they can be costly to repair. Officials are still assessing the damage, but it costs $400,000 to install nets at each crossing.

The nets, however, appear more promising than another federally funded rail safety project tested in Virginia: a 6-foot-high barrier that popped up from an underground vault to block off the tracks.

The so-called friendly mobile barrier did not live up to its billing, officials said. “The barrier proved to be too stiff” to vehicles that ran into them, said a government safety expert. “It definitely stopped the vehicles but totaled them in the process.”

The MTA, which operates 175 trains a day through 104 grade crossings on its Blue Line, plans to install signs to warn motorists to look both ways for trains. The signs will feature a train and arrows that light up in the direction from which it is coming.

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Times staff writers Eric Slater and Megan Garvey contributed to this report.


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