Southern California rail operators call to stop track tragedies during rail safety month

Written by Kyra Senese, managing editor
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Photo: Orange County Transportation Authority

Metrolink and the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), joined by regional passenger rail and freight operators, law enforcement agencies and Operation Lifesaver, issued a call to stop track tragedies Sept. 18 by discouraging dangerous behavior near tracks

Officials also encouraged the removal of homeless encampments along rail rights-of-way and promoted the availability of resources for people who may be contemplating suicide.

An incident takes place every three hours in the U.S. involving a train and a person or vehicle, according to Operation Lifesaver, the nation’s largest rail safety organization. Officials said the problem is acute in southern California, where public and private railroads operate throughout a dense urban environment.

Examples of such issues include people taking shortcuts on the right-of-way, people posing on tracks to use as a background for social media posts, to homeless encampments and suicide attempts. Officials also noted that there are nearly 900 grade crossings along the Metrolink system tracks.

“Across the state, passenger rail and freight operators have seen a spike in people trespassing on their rights-of-way,” said Nancy Sheehan-McCulloch of California Operation Lifesaver. “Trespassing on railroad tracks is dangerous and can be deadly.”

Additionally, suicide is cited as the leading category for fatal track tragedies on the Metrolink system, with at least 10 such deaths already having taken place in 2018, while there were four in 2017.

“Suicide does not discriminate; it affects people young and old, rich and poor and from different ethnic backgrounds. But the availability of lethal means such as living beside a train track can increase the risk,” says Lyn Morris, senior vice president of clinical operations for Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services. “Didi Hirsch’s Suicide Prevention Center has a free and confidential 24/7 Crisis Line (1-800-273-8255). If you or someone you care about is thinking about suicide, please call. Caring counselors are there to help.”

The presence of homeless individuals living alongside tracks is also a growing problem that officials say comes without simple solutions.

In early 2018, Metrolink had identified 140 homeless encampments along its tracks in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties. In recent months, that number has been reduced to 14 encampments, officials said.

Metrolink and regional rail partners including Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, BNSF and Union Pacific Railroad formed a homeless outreach task force to facilitate the combination of law enforcement, mental health and homeless outreach resources to humanely remove encampments, officials said.

“We rely on people to be responsible because sealing the rail corridors is not practical,” said Capt. Karl Schow of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, who oversees Metrolink’s law enforcement program. “Trespassers cut through fences to take short cuts.”

Categories: Commuter/Regional, Rapid Transit/Light Rail, Safety/Training
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