Substandard Safety Prevails at the Fifth and Rice Railroad Grade Crossing in Oxnard, CaliforniaI have lived in Ventura County, California for almost half my life. I love the place, but I know its history as a formerly remote, rural county whose patron families did not like change. In the 1950s and 1960s, their mantra was, “If we don’t build roads, no one will come”. With or without adequate roads, the people came. In 1970, the county population was 400,000. In 2013, it had more than doubled, to 840,000.
In 2004, Ventura County voters spurned a half-cent sales tax that would have been devoted to transportation projects. In 2008, county officials again ran that idea up the flagpole, only to see it shot down from every direction. Continued attempts to raise sales taxes in Ventura County was like a parody of the famous line in the movie, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. “Roads? We don’t need no stinkin roads!”
In July 2015, the Ventura County Transportation commission announced the results of their most recent poll regarding a new half cent sales tax in Ventura County, which would fund transportation improvements. Although sixty percent of respondents favored the idea, a ballot measure would require a two-thirds positive vote to succeed. If the measure appears on the 2016 ballot, we can expect a groundswell of opposition. Their likely rallying cry will be, “Taxes? We don’t need no stinkin taxes”.
In July 2015, train crash survivor Marc Gerstel and I visited the February 2015 Metrolink Oxnard collision site. First, we paid our respects at the memorial for engineer Glenn Steele, who died from injuries sustained in the collision. Then, Gerstel and I agreed that we would use my characters, Plush Kokopelli and Coney the Traffic Cone to make our visit more meaningful. Almost immediately, Plush Kokopelli jumped up on the Rice Ave. “crossbuck”, which is the generic term for the big overhead railroad warning sign. Aiming his flute down toward ground level, Plush Kokopelli pointed out a serious safety deficiency. If left unattended, the deficiency could have catastrophic consequences for motorists and train passengers at the crossing.
On the cast metal base of the crossbuck, one of four support flanges was split wide open, thus weakening the entire structure. Since the split flange faced Rice Ave., I assumed that a speeding vehicle had hit the metal base quite hard. If another vehicle were to strike the base at that vulnerable spot, the crossbuck tower-sign could collapse onto the roadway and even the railroad tracks.
Meanwhile, Coney had waited patiently while we took pictures of the damaged base of the crossbuck. By then, he could hardly contain himself. While standing by the crossbuck, Coney had made friends with a large Caltrans traffic cone, which was lying on its side, unable to right itself. After Coney got my attention, I tipped the Caltrans Coney up, so that it could stand on its own base. Since I have channeled Kokopelli and Coney for years, I could see that my Coney wanted to help Caltrans Coney once again be a productive member of the safety cone community.
Most news reports about the February 2015 Metrolink collision are incomplete. The driver of the F-450 work truck, Mr. Jose Sanchez-Ramirez was not a “recent transplant from Tucson, Arizona”. In fact, he was making his first-ever trip from Tucson to the Oxnard Plain. There, he was to deliver welding equipment to one of the local farms. The previous day, after driving from Tucson to San Diego, his original rig broke down. After waiting for delivery of a replacement truck, he headed north toward Ventura County. Somewhere along the way, he was in a minor traffic accident, which only delayed him further.
After driving all day and all night without rest, Jose Sanchez-Ramirez arrived before dawn on Rice Ave., heading south toward Fifth St. Having no GPS guidance, Sanchez-Ramirez relied on a printout of an internet map to guide him. There, exhausted and in the dark, he mistook the railroad tracks for Fifth St. and turned too soon. Eighty feet west, he stopped on the tracks, thus setting up the pre-dawn collision with Metrolink Train No. 102.
In July 2015, Marc Gerstel and I stood where Sanchez-Ramirez made his fateful turn. Beyond the crossbuck, but before the railroad tracks, I placed Caltrans Coney in his rightful place. If Caltrans Coney had been there, silently standing guard between the crossbuck and the tracks on that fateful morning, there would have been no collision. The vigilant Caltrans Coney would have warned Jose Sanchez-Ramirez against his errant turn. If that turn had not happened, Glenn Steele would be alive today and Marc Gerstel would still be an adjunct professor of dental technology at LA City College.
I found my first Coney the Traffic Cone almost a decade ago. Since then, I have collected many of the mistreated and abandoned traffic cones that I have found along the highway. Some were in good shape while others were nearly shredded. The good thing about a traffic cone is that if run over by a vehicle, more often than not, it will pop back into shape and keep on coning. If you look along the roadsides of America, eventually you will spot a Coney, standing or lying there with nothing productive to do.
If you find an abandoned Coney along the road, please pick it up. If you are in Ventura County, please carry it to the Fifth and Rice grade crossing. Once there, place it along the side of the road, between the crossbuck and the tracks. Then, drive away smiling, because you may have prevented the next Metrolink collision at Rice Ave. and Fifth St. in Oxnard, California. As Marc Gerstel, Coney, Kokopelli and I drove away from the scene; the battered and beaten Caltrans Coney proudly stood guard at the deadliest railroad crossing in Ventura County.
After visiting the collision site, Marc Gerstel gave me the latest facts regarding that intersection. “According to David Golonski, the chairperson of the LOSSAN Rail Corridor Agency, this is the second busiest rail corridor in the nation. For the past twenty years, the Rice Ave. and 5th Street crossing has earned the label as the ‘deadliest crossing in Ventura County’. With a total of fourteen accidents and four deaths, it is in the ‘top-23 list’ of most dangerous crossings in California. It ranks as the third most deadly in Southern California. The proposed solution by Mr. Leahy, which is to install ‘pavement sensors that would be faster and cheaper’ than a grade separation is like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound.”
According to the office of Congresswoman Julia Brownley (D - Agoura Hills), from 2006 - 2014, the Federal Highway Administration California Division has received over $42 million in federal money intended specifically for remediation of dangerous rail crossings. According to Malcolm Dougherty, Director of Caltrans, the grade crossing at Rice and Fifth is not high enough on the statewide priority list to receive any of that funding. Despite Dougherty's statement that, "We are committed to expeditiously obligating and utilizing all federal funds for this (safety) effort", to date none of the $42 million has been obligated or spent.
If the previously allocated, yet un-utilized federal funding were to be allocated for improvements at the Fifth and Rice grade crossing, there would be sufficient funds to build and dedicate the proposed "Glenn Steele Memorial Overpass" at the site of his fatal injuries. If not, I expect the sixth extinction to be complete and the next ice age to commence before we see any mitigation of the dangers still evident at Fifth and Rice, in Oxnard, California.
This is Part 2 of a two-part article. To read Part 1, please click HERE.