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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.