Ignoring Long Arm of Rail Law Costly

Times Staff Writer

Almost 50 motorists and pedestrians in Santa Ana got a $321 reminder Wednesday morning: Don't ignore the descending arms of a railroad crossing gate.

The citations were issued by Santa Ana motorcycle officers with the help of Orange County sheriff's deputies as part of a one-day Metrolink operation intended to remind residents that ducking beneath or around the gates is risky, if not deadly.

The 48 citations, including 10 arrests authorities said were related to drug activity on the tracks, were hailed as a success at a Santa Ana train depot news conference. But authorities said they also show that some people are still not aware of the danger trains can pose as they whiz through residential and business neighborhoods at speeds up to 90 mph.

"You've got a big 'X' on the street, you've got red flashing lights, you got a bell, a gate coming down, and you still have 48 violations," said Jim McInerney, a rail safety coordinator for the California Public Utilities Commission, which co-sponsored the event.

McInerney warned: "You may get home 45 seconds earlier, but one thing to remember is, you may not get home at all."

Officials said the event was organized partly because Santa Ana has a particular problem at a rail crossing on McFadden Avenue, where two people have died in five accidents since 1995. The intersection has been named by the federal government as one of the 10 most dangerous crossings in the state.

Federal money recently acquired for improving safety at McFadden Avenue will go toward installing pedestrian gates, similar to the gates lowered over traffic lanes, officials said.

But no deadline has been set for the improvements. The overlapping agencies in charge of ensuring safety at the crossing are in a "diagnostic process" to figure out the best way to use available funding, said Francisco Oaxaca, Metrolink's external communications manager.

Seven Santa Ana rail intersections were targeted in Wednesday's operation, including the McFadden crossing.

One of the motorcycle officers watching McFadden from behind a parked van said police had given out several citations by 9 a.m. "They'll see the lights, and the gates come down, and they'll cross anyway," said Officer Alan Berg.

Nearby at the Metrolink intersection with Grand Avenue, a sheriff's deputy patted the back of day laborer Carlos Martinez after handing him a citation for walking across the tracks after the gates dropped.

"The honest truth is, I do it all the time," Martinez said, frowning at his ticket and shuffling away.

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