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Housing & Homelessness

As California’s homeless people camp out on railroad tracks, train-related deaths are rising

Jessa Macola
Jessa Macola collected the mangled remains of her late boyfriend’s bike after he was killed by an Amtrak train near the freeway underpass where they lived. Train deaths have surged in California as homeless encampments have mushroomed along railroad tracks.
(Rachel Scheier)

Just after 8 on a warm evening in September, Janae Bell was shooting the breeze with two friends at the Hearst Avenue railroad crossing, sharing some pastries and talking bikes. Over the clanging bells of a Union Pacific freight train rumbling past on the opposite track, they didn’t hear the Amtrak barreling toward them.

With seconds to spare, Bell, 41, looked up, screamed “Train!” and dove off the tracks. But when he turned to look for his friends, he said, “They were gone.”

Jason “Fixie” Clary, 37, a local figure in the growing urban sport of fixed-gear bicycle racing, and Jupiter Marley, 31, a free-spirited creative known by his friends as “Jupiter of the Universe,” were pronounced dead at the scene. Like Bell, they had lived a few blocks away in a sprawling homeless encampment off Interstate 80.

California’s railroad tracks are now lined with men and women sleeping in tents or under cardboard boxes, from the underpasses of Oakland and L.A. to the farmlands of the Central Valley.

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As a result, train deaths have become the latest side effect of the state’s vast unmet need for affordable shelter, according to experts who have linked the homeless crisis to the steady uptick in train deaths in California. The state annually leads the nation in pedestrian railroad fatalities, even when accounting for its larger population.

Train-related deaths
Janae Bell saw the oncoming train just in time to get out of the way. “The tracks were like our sidewalk,” he said. “If you live out here every day, all day, you get used to living on them.”
(Rachel Scheier)

The number of people hurt or killed on state rail lines has surged from 170 in 2013 to 254 in 2018, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. That doesn’t include collisions at crossings or on local transit systems, which also have increased in many places.

Six of the top 10 counties for so-called trespasser rail fatalities, not including suicides, from 2013 to 2017 were in California, with Los Angeles County ranking No. 1 in the nation. San Bernardino, Fresno, Riverside, Contra Costa, and San Diego counties also made the top 10.

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The widespread use of smartphones and headphones has upped the risk of accidental rail casualties, and suicides by train are also on the rise.

But increasingly, the victims of such tragedies are homeless people who — less and less tolerated in parks or on city sidewalks — seek refuge in no-man’s land that’s dangerously close to speeding locomotives.

In 2018, a transient was killed on the tracks that run along the West Berkeley waterfront, only a few blocks from where Clary and Marley would die in September. Brianna Combash, 31 and 6-foot-3, was known around the settlement as “Big Bird.” Police said she’d been riding her bike when she was hit by an Oakland-bound Amtrak train.

“Jason couldn’t understand it when Brianna got hit. He said, ‘How do you get hit by a train?’ ” said Jessa Macola, Clary’s girlfriend. The two shared a tent with their dog, Chance, in a rat-infested stretch under the University Avenue interchange.

Train-related deaths
Jesse Macola and other members of the University Avenue settlement erected a memorial for their friends at the railroad crossing where they died. Another resident of the camp was hit last year on the tracks just a few blocks away.
(Rachel Scheier)

As Bell later told railroad officials: “Those tracks were kind of like our sidewalk. If you live out here every day, all day, you get used to living on them.”

That makes the situation especially dangerous, said Karen Philbrick, executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University.

“People become desensitized,” she said. “They know the sound of the trains and the rhythm of the schedules, and they don’t anticipate departures from that.”

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California is home to one-fourth of the nation’s homeless population, nearly 130,000 people in 2018. Union Pacific says it works with Operation Lifesaver, a rail safety organization, to educate transients on the dangers of trespassing on the tracks, and it encourages people to report encampments on its right-of-way.

A 2019 grand jury investigation into a surge in rail deaths in Santa Barbara County found that of 20 people killed by trains during the last four years, 12 were transients living in settlements along the tracks. More than half of the total fatalities were suicides. It recommended installing cameras to help patrol “hot spots” where encampments had formed near broken fences and overgrown shrubs.

But officials acknowledge that such measures won’t solve the underlying social problems such as poverty and untreated mental illness.

“This is a public health crisis,” said Farhad Mansourian, general manager of Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, or SMART, which has registered 10 deaths in the two years since it opened, half of them within a three-week stretch last summer.

The boutique transit service is generally known for its Friday afternoon happy hour, when consultants and tech employees in Hawaiian shirts ride home from work sipping microbrews in the bar car. But early one morning in late June, a 30-year-old homeless woman named Jimmie Joy Qualls was killed trying to cross in front of an oncoming SMART train in the wine country suburb of Rohnert Park.

Train-related deaths
Bell and Macola watch a passing freight train with homeless activist Andrea Henson. The deaths of the two men spurred a movement among the “unhoused” to lobby Berkeley officials for better protections.
(Rachel Scheier)

She died about 50 feet from a park-and-ride that was packed with people living out of their cars and RVs. A cyclist wearing headphones was hit the next day, followed by what Mansourian would soon learn was a grim pattern of copycat suicides.

SMART began running in 2017 on old tracks that had lain unused and overgrown since Northwestern Pacific stopped running passenger trains in the late 1950s. For years, the dormant tracks served as a footpath for transients who made their homes camping along creeks, under bridges, even in treehouses along the old railroad right-of-way.

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But, as in other places, homelessness has spiked in Sonoma County, which has suffered deep cuts to mental health services in the last few years just as thousands suffered losses of homes and businesses to wildfires.

Part of the problem is engineering. California’s thousands of miles of train tracks tend to run right through cities and towns without fencing or even shrubbery separating them from pedestrians and cars. But installing so-called grade separation costs billions, Philbrick said.

Caltrain, which ferries millions of commuters a year between San Francisco and Silicon Valley, plans to spend some $10 billion over the next two decades to raise the tracks at especially dangerous crossings.

A string of students at elite high schools took their own lives on the Caltrain tracks that run through Palo Alto starting in 2009. At the height of the crisis, parent volunteers took shifts sitting in lawn chairs guarding the tracks through the night. The city eventually hired 24-hour guards to oversee the tracks. Recently, the guards were replaced with surveillance cameras.

Experts acknowledge that it’s difficult to assess how well these tactics work. Fatalities were up in 2019 for Caltrain, which as of early December had registered 16 deaths, including a 17-year-old from Mountain View who took his own life in October.

The often overlooked victims of these tragedies are the engineers and conductors, who are usually powerless to stop them in time: A fully loaded freight train takes more than a mile to come to a stop once the emergency brake has been thrown.

“It’s the faces, for whatever reason; they kind of stick with you,” said Darrel Azarcon, a retired engineer who spent 40 years driving trains for Union Pacific. He still has a mental picture of a young girl who looked up at him over her left shoulder as the train bore down on her.

In August, officials in Rohnert Park voted to outlaw overnight camping at the parking lot near the Golf Course Drive SMART crossing, where four people have died in just over two years.

A few days after the ban, Sean Barry, an unemployed construction worker who’d been living at the park-and-ride, sat in his pickup drinking Kessler whiskey out of a half-gallon bottle.

“No one wants to be around the homeless,” he said, adding that if he had somewhere else to go, he wouldn’t be living in a parking lot.

Berkeley has passed a raft of new rules effectively banning the homeless from occupying city sidewalks and plazas, forbidding people from living in RVs and, most recently, upholding a rule that people’s property must fit into a 3-by-3-foot box.

The California Department of Transportation has stepped up its periodic sweeps of large Bay Area homeless settlements, which often have ironic names like Googleville and Upstairs, Downstairs. While some residents applaud the evictions, others have criticized them as inhumane and wasteful, since the homeless invariably come back as soon as the bulldozers have gone.

The September deaths of the two young encampment residents ignited the homeless community’s long-simmering anger at what they see as the government’s failure to ensure a basic right.

The day Clary and Marley died, as a heat wave gripped the Bay, they’d spent the day sitting in the sun with the other transients guarding their belongings while authorities dismantled the camp. Sleeping bags and suitcases left during sweeps end up in the dumpster, encampment residents say.

In the following days, as word of the tragedy spread from tent to tent, grief turned to anger.

“After Jupiter and Fixie were killed, everyone was like: ‘You know what? This is enough,’” said Andrea Henson, a homeless advocate who interns at the East Bay Community Law Center.

She and some 80 homeless people marched some two miles to City Hall carrying bullhorns and signs with photos of Clary and Marley. When the authorities arrived for the next sweep, they held a sit-in, refusing to move.

“This is what happens when you push people to the margins of society,” said Henson. “The shelters are at capacity, and we aren’t allowed on city sidewalks — we want an answer.”

Their “Where Do We Go?” movement has since continued to grow, raising enough money on GoFundMe to buy all-weather tents and tarps and three new portable toilets for the encampment. Bell explained that he and his friends had walked over to the tracks that night to use the temporary bathrooms put there for the day laborers.

At the crossing, friends built a memorial for Clary and Marley around a bouquet of dried flowers in an empty Bombay Sapphire gin bottle. They festooned it with photos, candles, old birthday cards, a pirate’s hat and the mangled pieces of Clary’s bike.

Scheier is a special correspondent.


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