Saturday, May 2, 2015

Railroad vs. Motorist Collisions - An Escalating Disaster in Southern California


Collisions between railroad trains and motor vehicles in Ventura County are on the rise - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Railroad vs. Motorist Collisions - An Escalating Disaster in Southern California

Early in the morning of February 23, 2015, Jose Sanchez-Ramirez, 54, mistakenly turned his Ford F-450 work truck and utility trailer onto the Union Pacific Cost Line railroad tracks near the intersection of Rice Ave. and Fifth St. in Oxnard, California. Soon after Sanchez-Ramirez abandoned his rig, Metrolink passenger train No. 102 struck his disabled work truck at a place eighty feet west of Rice Ave. A week later, Senior Metrolink Engineer Glenn Steele succumbed to injuries suffered in the collision. During the derailment of the five-car Metrolink train, twenty-nine other people onboard suffered moderate to severe injuries.

Only close inspection of the railroad tracks and roadbed at Rice Ave. in Oxnard will show the unrepaired damage to the Union Pacific Railroad's Coast Line - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)After firefighters extinguished the resulting fire, a work crew soon removed the coaches and made emergency repairs to the damaged railroad infrastructure. Almost two weeks later, when I surveyed the scene, all looked well at the Rice Ave. grade crossing. To the casual observer, there were few signs that a major rail collision had so recently occurred. Looking closer, I soon found many deficiencies in the hasty cleanup and repairs that had so recently concluded.

Along the northern border of the crash scene, the tail end of cab-control car No. 645 had whipped into a cinder block and wrought iron wall. After the cleanup, a gaping hole measuring almost one hundred feet remained where that substantial fence once stood. Immediately east of Rice Ave., a misalignment of the north-side rail was obvious to the naked eye. East of the grade crossing, where steel railroad wheels had bent the north-side rail and sliced into the roadbed, workers had reused damaged railroad ties during repairs. Despite the addition of many reinforcing clamps to that damaged rail, train traffic in the interim had loosened many of the railroad spikes intended to stabilize the roadbed. Two weeks after the accident and the completion of emergency repairs, the whole scene appeared to be less safe than it was prior to the wreck of Train No. 102.

In the Southern California press, many articles have discussed the overall safety of the Metrolink system and the Rice Ave. grade crossing in particular. Transportation studies have concluded that a $30-35 million grade separation is the only way to make the crossing safe. That would require a complex roadway overpass spanning both Fifth St. and the Union Pacific Coast Line. Like a freeway, the overpass would require ramps to transition from Fifth St. to the elevated portion of Rice Ave.

Electrical tape twisted around two wires is all that keeps the Rice Ave., Oxnard grade crossing arms in operation - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)To date, voters in nineteen of fifty-eight California counties have approved additional, transportation-focused sales taxes. In 2004, the electorate in Ventura County defeated a levy of one-half percent. Despite the highway and rail carnage of the past decade, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors has steadfastly refused to allow or promote a new popular vote on a sales tax dedicated to transportation projects. Safety concerns at the Oxnard Plains rail crossings alone should be enough to engender a county ballot measure. I find myself asking, “When we need leadership, where are our leaders?”

As a result, there is insufficient funding to complete the design of a Rice Ave. grade separation, let alone building the $30-35 million project itself. Neither state nor federal transportation agencies tend to support projects unless the affected county defrays at least some of the cost. Unless voters approve an additional county sales tax levy, it may be a decade or more before construction can alleviate the menace of the Rice Ave. grade crossing to both rail passengers and vehicular traffic.

To make matters worse, a high pressure natural gas line passes under the point of a Metrolink collision at the Rice Ave. grade crossing in Oxnard, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Rice Avenue is not the only dangerous rail grade crossing in Ventura County. Less than two weeks after engineer Glenn Steele lost his life on the Coast Line in Ventura County, there was a non-fatal collision of an Amtrak train and a passenger vehicle. This collision was on a rainy night at the nearby Pleasant Valley Road and Fifth St. grade crossing. Confused, the driver of a green sedan somehow came to a stop upon the diagonally crossing train track. Prior to the collision, which destroyed the sedan, the driver and a passenger were able to exit the vehicle without injury. Imagine getting stuck on the tracks in the rain and darkness. After a hurried departure from your vehicle, you and your passenger watch as an Amtrak locomotive crushes your vehicle into a mass of twisted metal. That could be scary.

Utility truck traffic has grown with the population and industrialization in Oxnard, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)On April 23, 2015, exactly two months after the collision of Train No. 102 at the Rice Ave. crossing, yet another fatal train/auto collision occurred on the Oxnard Plain. That morning, an unnamed 35-year-old male driver attempted to cross the tracks at South Las Posas Rd. and Fifth St. Remarkably similar in configuration to the Rice Ave. and Fifth St. grade crossing, the SUV driver’s southbound journey ended abruptly on the Coast Line tracks. There, an eastbound Union Pacific freight train struck the side of the SUV, rolling it multiple times along the tracks and into a dirt ditch. After using special equipment to remove the driver from the crumpled vehicle, first-responders declared him dead at the scene.

Remarkably, this latest deadly incident barely made news in Los Angeles. Both the Ventura County Star and the Los Angeles Times published online accounts Once rare on the railroads of America, Bakken crude oil unit trains now traverse every part of the country - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)that day. The following day, the Star headlined the story on its front page. Television coverage by Los Angeles TV stations was limited to news crawlers at the bottom of the screen. Was this latest deadly accident a suicide? Alternatively, was it one more distracted driver speeding south along the road that morning? In either event, the dismal state of rail-crossing safety in Ventura County requires an immediate and comprehensive review.

Phillips 66, which operates an oil refinery at Nipomo, in San Luis Obispo County, California has plans to build a railroad spur from the Union Pacific Coast Line to their facility. If San Luis Obispo County approves the Phillips 66 plan, “rolling bomb” trains of eighty-cars each will begin their journey by traversing the Los Angeles basin five times each week.

In Simi Valley, California, motorists show a casual attitude toward safety as they stop on the Union Pacific Coast Line railroad tracks - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)After exiting a train tunnel under Santa Susana Pass, each northbound oil train will encounter multiple grade crossings in the suburbs and fields of Ventura County. In Simi Valley alone, there are ten grade crossings. In Moorpark and neighboring Somis, there are twelve more. Between Camarillo and Oxnard, there are an additional thirteen grade crossings. Each train will carry 52,000 barrels of flammable, highly toxic Bakken crude oil in single-wall tank cars of dubious integrity and crashworthiness.

Loose spikes abound at the site of a February 2015 Metrolink rail disaster in Oxnard, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Explosions of Bakken crude oil trains have recently become an ongoing hazard to anyone nearby. Even with a new federal mandate to upgrade tank cars to double-walled, insulated designs, it will be 2020 before all 43,000 obsolete tank cars are retired from service. If nothing else, the February 23, 2015 Metrolink collision in Oxnard proved that if even one obsolete or deficient car is included in a train, it can compromise the integrity of the entire train. As seen in numerous crashes and explosions of oil trains in the past few years, derailment and decoupling of the older tank cars can wreak havoc on nearby towns.

There are thirty-five grade crossings between Simi Valley and Oxnard. If the oil trains run, there will be more than one hundred seventy-five opportunities for an oil train collision in Ventura County each week. Not counting the return trips made by empty oil trains, the Phillips 66 plan will present a minimum of 9,100 opportunities for an oil train collision in Ventura County each year. Annually, 13,520,000 barrels of oil will move past the makeshift memorial still standing at the Rice Ave. and Fifth St. in Oxnard. That is as much oil as the U.S. consumed on a daily basis within the past twenty years.

In days of old, a train wreck was cause for a community gathering. Today, we try to erase the results and pretend that they did not happen - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Whether any future train collision is the result of driver inattention, excessive speed, domestic terrorism or "suicide by train" is immaterial. Despite slower speeds now required of oil trains in populated areas, eventually a “rolling bomb” oil train will collide with a motor vehicle in Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo Counties. If that happens, the ensuing fire and explosions could raise the casualty count exponentially.

After successfully negotiating the now decrepit and dysfunctional grade crossing at Fifth St. and Rice Ave., each proposed oil train will roll north, through the cities of Ventura and Santa Barbara. Only with incredibly good luck will all of those trains reach the Phillips 66 refinery in Nipomo. If only one more Ford F-450 high-centers on the tracks at Rice Ave., a $30-35 million grade separation there will look like a bargain. With both the county supervisors and electorate in Ventura County contemplating their own potential death in a flaming train wreck, I wish good luck to all in the path of this impending rail disaster.

This is Part 2 of a two-part article. To read Part 1, Click Here.




  

Friday, May 1, 2015

Ventura County Railroad Grade Crossing at Rice Ave. Becomes a Deadly, Serial Disaster


Metrolink collision in Oxnard, California injures twenty-nine and later kills one person - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Ventura County Railroad Grade Crossing at Rice Ave. Becomes a Deadly, Serial Disaster

Jack Kerouac began his novel, “The Dharma Bums”, with a northbound train trip on what is now the Union Pacific Railroad’s Coast Line. Kerouac wrote, “Hopping a freight out of Los Angeles at high noon one day in late September 1955 I got on a gondola and lay down with my duffel bag under my head and my knees crossed and contemplated the clouds as we rolled north to Santa Barbara. It was a local and I intended to sleep on the beach at Santa Barbara that night and catch either another local to San Luis Obispo the next morning or the firstclass freight all the way to San Francisco at seven Famed for its strawberry crop, the Oxnard Plain is one of the most fertile growing regions in the U.S. - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)p.m. Somewhere near Camarillo where Charlie Parker’d been mad and relaxed back to normal health, a thin old little bum climbed into my gondola as we headed into a siding…”

With its fertile land and mild coastal climate, the Oxnard Plain can support up to three row crops per year. After making a turn south of Camarillo, the Coast Line railroad heads due west for several miles, and then turns north at Oxnard. From Camarillo to Oxnard, State Route 34 (known as Fifth Street in Oxnard) parallels the train tracks. As it was during Kerouac’s 1955 excursion, northbound trains still encounter grade crossings at Pleasant Valley Road, South Las Posas Road and again at East Pleasant Valley Road. Before reaching Rice Ave., there is still one more grade crossing at North Del Norte Blvd.

The grade crossing at Rice Ave. and Fifth St. in Oxnard, California where Metrolink Train No. 102 struck an F-450 utility truck and trailer on February 24, 2015 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillios.com)The Coast Line, now operated by the Union Pacific Railroad, starts in San Francisco. In his 1950’s journal entry titled “The Railroad Earth”, Jack Kerouac described milepost 0.00. “There was a little alley in San Francisco back of the Southern Pacific station at Third and Townsend in redbrick of drowsy lazy afternoons with everybody at work in offices in the air you feel the impending rush of their commuter frenzy as soon they’ll be charging en masse from Market and Sansome buildings on foot and in buses and all well-dressed through workingman Frisco…”

Just over 406 track-miles south from Kerouac’s surprisingly contemporary description of San Francisco, at Oxnard is the infamous intersection of South Rice Ave. and Fifth St. In frequency and severity of rail collisions, the grade crossing at Rice Ave. and Fifth St. is the most dangerous in Ventura County.

A small memorial at Rice Avenue commemorates at least two separate train/vehicle collisions at the grade crossing - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Although the location ranks as only the 23rd most hazardous rail crossing in California, the carnage involved with high-speed collisions at Rice Ave. makes it seem much worse. Since 2009, three separate train collisions have occurred at what is now the deadliest rail crossing in Ventura County. A small shrine near the grade crossing includes three white crosses, two of which commemorate a June 3, 2014 Amtrak/car collision that took two lives. The largest cross features a fading “RIP” for Joel Arias.

Two baseball caps left at the makeshift memorial indicate that one or both decedents were San Francisco 49er fans. A long-dead miniature Christmas tree and wreath commemorated a poignant moment for friends and family of the young men. That fateful day, Arias accelerated his black, 2004 Infinity G35 A utility truck and trailer similar in size to the Ford F-450 utility truck at the scene of the earlier derailment of Metrolink Train No. 102 in Oxnard, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)southbound towards the Rice Ave. crossing. As his vehicle approached the tracks, red lights flashed, bells sounded and the crossing arms were down. Speeding onto the tracks, Arias’ Infinity collided with the engine of the eastbound Amtrak Coast Starlight passenger train. Although no one on the Amtrak train was injured, both twenty-year-old Arias and his nineteen-year-old passenger, Chris Stevens perished upon impact with the Amtrak locomotive.

Nine months later, before sunrise on February 24, 2015, Jose Sanchez-Ramirez, 54, a first-time visitor from Tucson Arizona, approached the same location. In the dark, driving on unfamiliar roads, Sanchez-Ramirez turned his vehicle too soon. Eighty feet west of Rice Ave., his Ford F-450 utility truck and double-axle trailer came to rest, straddling the southern rail. After realizing that he had high-centered his rig, Sanchez-Ramirez turned on the emergency flashers, opened the driver-side door and vacated the scene on foot.

"Stay Alert, Stay Alive" graphic emblazoned on an obsolete Metrolink Bombardier bi-level coach car, at Los Angeles Union Station in early 2015 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Originating from the East Ventura Metrolink Station at 5:25 AM that day, Metrolink Train No. 102 accelerated to seventy-nine miles per hour before approaching the Rice Avenue grade crossing at 5:44 AM. Southbound Metrolink trains typically feature a diesel pusher engine, several commuter coaches of various types and a cab-control car with enhanced crash protection at the front. In this case, the unoccupied pusher engine was the venerable Metrolink No. 870 and taking the lead was the newer cab-control car No. 645.

After a deadly collision in 2008 involving a Metrolink passenger train and a Union Pacific freight train in Chatsworth, California, Metrolink spent $263-million on a fleet of new, more crash-worthy passenger coaches. Although the cab-control car and the Hyundai-Rotem third and fourth coach cars were of the new design, the second coach was an older, lighter and less crash-worthy Bombardier bi-level model. In retrospect, it seems foolish for Metrolink to create a five-car train in which the second coach car is both unsafe and functionally obsolete.

Metrolink Engine No. 870, which crashed in Oxnard, California, resulting in the death of Senior Metrolink Engineer Glenn Steele - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Soon after Sanchez-Ramirez abandoned his rig, Train No. 102 approached the Rice Ave. crossing at fifty-six miles per hour. Senior Metrolink Engineer Glenn Steele, 62, was in the right-hand seat of the cab. Steele, of Homeland in Riverside County, had forty-two years of experience and ranked No. 1 on the Metrolink seniority list. Operating the train from the left seat was an unnamed student engineer. This was to be his final check ride prior to the student becoming a Metrolink engineer.

Survivors of a train collision often describe the events as happening in slow motion. Because of their immense size, railroad rolling stock takes time to derail, head off in different directions and then come to a rest. Still, in less than one minute the calamitous events of that February morning came to their inevitable conclusion.

Derailed strike-point of the left wheel truck on cab-control car No. 645, as it careened to the left at the Rice Ave. and Fifth Street grade crossing in Oxnard, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Moments before the collision, the truck’s headlights and emergency flashers loomed into view of cab-control car No. 645. From there, the student engineer applied the emergency brakes. It is unknown if the student engineer stayed in his seat throughout the inevitable collision with the truck and trailer. Later reports indicated that engineer Glenn Steele stayed in his seat throughout the flaming collision. In those brief moments, he witnessed and felt the derailment, decoupling, spinning and toppling of the cab-control car.

With the train's brakes in full emergency mode for only eight seconds, cab-control car No. 645 collided with the Ford F-450 eighty feet west of the Rice Ave. grade crossing. Lighter than its diesel pusher engine to the rear, the cab-control car derailed and then rode up over the wreckage of the F-450, slicing it almost in half. Forensic evidence shows that the derailed left Path of the derailed cab-control car No. 645 across the concrete grade crossing at Rice Ave. in Oxnard is clearly evident in this picture - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)wheel-truck of the cab-control car hit the steel edge of the grade crossing platform, hopped into the air for several feet and then veered diagonally to the left across Rice Ave.

As Sir Isaac Newton taught us, objects in motion tend to stay in motion. Metrolink Engine No. 870, an EMD F59PH rated at 3000 horsepower, took longer to stop than the four lighter coaches that preceded it across the roadway. Although cab-control car No. 645 featured an anti-derailment device, which looks similar to a small snowplow, that lightweight blade was no match for the mass of a 14,000-pound utility truck and trailer. A photo taken after the collision shows that the anti-derailment “plow” had detached from the Significant damage to railroad ties went unrepaired after the derailment of Metrolink Train No. 102 in February 2015 - Click for larger image (htp://jamesmcgillis.com)cab-control car and was lost in the collision.

As cab-control car No. 645 veered to the left, the obsolete Bombardier bi-level coach car No. 206 behind it pushed forward, exacerbating the derailment. Just east of the Rice Ave. grade crossing, the cab-control car and the second coach car fully derailed and soon decoupled. As the cab-control car veered to the left, its steel wheels ripped up wooden railroad ties, further compromising the roadbed. Meanwhile, Engine No. 870 continued decelerating at the rear of the train.

Like a highway patrol officer performing a “pit maneuver”, momentum from the second coach car pivoted the cab-control car to the left. As it veered off-track and down an embankment, its crash-resistant nose dug into the bottom of a shallow depression. Because of its lightweight construction, the After a fiery collision and hasty repairs, deflection in the north side (right hand) rail of the Union Pacific Railroad's Coast Line at Rice Ave. is obvious. Numerous rail clamps applied to the "quick fix" now have loose spikes holding them to a decrepit and deficient rail - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) in Oxnardobsolete second coach car had not withstood the extreme pressures exerted on the couplers at each end. Inertia from its previous mate pivoted the cab-control car 180-degrees, while toppling it onto its side. Coming to rest, cab-control car No. 645 lay on its right side, pointing opposite its original direction of travel.

Meanwhile, the lightweight Bombardier second coach car was off the rails at both ends and decoupled from both the cab-control car and the third coach car. Having expended so much kinetic energy pushing the cab-control car asunder, the second coach car launched off the rails to the right, where it came to rest, on its right side, many yards away. The newer and heavier third and fourth coach cars derailed, yet stayed in alignment with the tracks. In the final moments of Metrolink cab-control car No. 645 being righted after a collision at Rice Ave., Oxnard, California. Note the damage to the right side-window, where Senior Metrolink Engineer Glenn Steele sustained fatal injuries - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)the collision, the third coach car toppled onto its left side. Although partially derailed, Engine No. 870 came to rest in an upright position.

As the nose of the cab-control car hit the dirt, Engineer Glenn Steele remained at the controls. As his lead car finished its tumultuous pirouette, the right side-window of the cab broke out and disappeared into the rubble. According to news reports, Steele suffered chest injuries in the crash. Later, a family member told the press that Steele’s heart had stopped twice in the days after the accident. One week after the collision, Glenn Steele succumbed to his injuries.

This is Part 1 of a two-part article. To read Part 2, Click Here.