Fast-Tracking a Neglected Rail Hazard

Times Staff Writer

After the federal government named 10 railroad crossings the riskiest in California, major alterations were quickly prepared for nine of them -- everything from underpasses and new safety arms to closing a road that crossed the tracks in the desert town of Amboy.

But at the 10th crossing on the list, at McFadden Avenue on a stretch of rail that cuts through a Spanish-speaking neighborhood in Santa Ana, the improvements have been far more modest: a new sidewalk and two signs in English that say "Do Not Stop on Tracks."

Unlike other communities, Santa Ana did not vigorously campaign for improvements at the crossing, where two people have died in five accidents since 1995. And the state agency that oversees rail safety acknowledges it neglected the problem.

The list of the 10 most risky crossings in California was published by the Federal Railroad Administration in 2001. It includes the McFadden crossing, and others in Amboy, Anaheim, Santa Fe Springs, Fresno, Los Angeles, Merced and the small Northern California city of Riverbank.

Each was chosen because of its history of accidents, deaths, traffic counts and safety measures in place.

In all of the cities but Santa Ana, lobbyists, engineers and council members pushed for improvements. In Santa Fe Springs, a median is being installed at Rosecrans and Marquardt avenues.

In Los Angeles, medians and widened curbs are planned where the tracks cross Coldwater Canyon Avenue and Sherman Way. And in Anaheim, new bridges and underpasses are planned along the rail line.

In Santa Ana, meanwhile, the crossing wasn't given priority status by the state until this week, after an inquiry by The Times.

"I will admit that apparently we lost track of this crossing for a bit," said Richard Clark, director of the Public Utilities Commission's consumer protection and safety division.

The PUC prioritizes crossings that should be improved by the city with federal money funneled through the state Department of Transportation.

Locally, train crossings in Santa Ana drew renewed attention after the recent death of a motorist whose car was hit by a Metrolink train at Lyon Street, just down the track from McFadden. Both crossings are in a working-class neighborhood where schoolchildren and workers cross the double set of tracks daily.

Three years ago, a 12-year-old girl was killed at McFadden when she darted in front of a northbound Metrolink train. Months before that, a 25-year-old pedestrian was killed by a southbound Amtrak train.

Clark said Santa Ana's risk could be reduced if $200,000 in state funding is made available for gates that pedestrians would be forced to open before crossing the tracks. It is not clear when the funding will be available.

The move to install pedestrian gates comes as city officials are hiring an engineering consultant to study the intersection. In addition, the Orange County Transportation Authority expects to complete by early December a survey of 64 crossings in the county to determine if improvements are needed elsewhere along the tracks. City officials believe Metrolink could make the crossings in Santa Ana safer if it provided better warning of approaching trains.

The city requested greater signal warnings in 2001 and 2002 in meetings with representatives of the PUC and Metrolink, but has not received a response, said Monica Suter, a Santa Ana civil engineer.

Metrolink spokeswoman Sharon Gavin said there is no record of a formal request from the city. Gavin said officials from the city, the PUC, the school district and Metrolink plan to meet next week to discuss options.

Warnings are not necessarily the solution because they "could lull drivers into a false sense of confidence," Gavin said.

Suter said additional warnings are desirable because grade separations are expensive. Clark said a study in 2000 showed a bridge or underpass at McFadden could cost $12 million.

High price tags, however, have not dissuaded officials in the other cities, who believed bridges, underpasses and other improvements would help traffic run more smoothly and protect cars and pedestrians. They say they did not act because of public outcry, but rather out of their own concern for public safety. And they pat themselves on the back for their persistence in the face of complicated state and federal funding procedures.

In Fresno, officials planned and pushed for a decade before an underpass was dug beneath the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad tracks at Shaw Avenue, one of the crossings listed in the 2001 report. The $18-million project was funded largely from federal and state sources.

Riverbank, a town of 17,000 in Stanislaus County, also pushed hard to get improvements at a railroad crossing that was listed among the most risky. Officials say it was a challenge to draw attention to the small city outside Modesto.

Linda Abid-Cummings, administrative service director in Riverbank, said she and other city leaders leaned on state representatives for state funding to provide more signals and better arms at the railroad crossing at Patterson Road, improvements that were completed last year.

Cities "have to get noticed," Abid-Cummings said. "The city has to get out there.

"We saw an accident waiting to happen."

Noting the time-consuming process to get funds for crossing improvements, Los Angeles last month created the Railroad Crossing Improvements Division Section within its Department of Transportation, said Senior Transportation Engineer Sean Haeri.

Tom Lopez, assistant director of public works in Santa Fe Springs, said he has been calling and writing state officials and representatives of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad for five years to improve the Rosecrans crossing, another of the most risky identified in the report.

Federal records show eight accidents at the intersection since 1997.

In 2002, the city finally received state funds for a bridge over the tracks, but funding dried up with the state budget crisis. Instead, the state has promised about $400,000 to improve traffic signals, provide additional overhead signals and install a raised median to prevent cars from crossing quickly.

So Lopez keeps calling and writing.

"We have not gotten anything yet. They told us they would fund it, but I'm leery," he said. "You have to keep complaining. You can't let up."

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