In its War Against Nature and History, Moab, Utah Scores a Decisive Victory
In March 2012, Grand County, Utah received funding from the NPS "Connect Trails to Parks" (CTTP) program for projects to enhance the Moab Lions Park Transit and Trail Hub. Over the previous four years, individuals from Grand County, Moab City, NPS, BLM, the Lions Club, Trail Mix, and the Moab Trails Alliance had collaborated to develop Lions Park as a trail and transportation hub. The various groups worked with a consultant hired using the NPS grant monies to develop interpretive and trail signs to be installed during 2014.
Starting with the Moab Lions Club in the 1970s and 1980s, public, private and nonprofit agencies and individuals poured countless hours into planning “Lions Park: Gateway to Moab”. By April 2015, the new Lions Transit Hub was in operation just across State Route 128 from the old Lions Club Park. Decades of planning and construction around the old park were almost complete. Careful redevelopment of the quaint but aging Moab Lions Park was all that remained undone.
Unfortunately, a successful outcome for Lions Park was not to be. On March 31, 2015, it took only one cool spring morning to erase one hundred sixty years of history from the birthplace of Moab, Utah. Working from faulty plans, uninformed contractors used mechanized equipment to bulldoze every visible remnant of what once was Lions Park. Gone from the site were the stately Fremont Cottonwood trees whose ancestors once shaded the 1855 Elk Mountain Mission, and later shaded twentieth century picnickers. Gone are the familiar parking lot, walkways, picnic areas and water fountains. Gone is every trace of Moab Lions Club work performed over most of the late twentieth century. Gone from the southern terminus of State Route 128 are the classic wooden highway signs that once pointed the way to Arches National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park.
“Even after all that effort, it just went amok,” Community Development Director Dave Olsen said. According to Olsen's estimates, some of the eight trees were 80 to 100 years old, and perhaps even older. Perhaps some of those trees shaded the 1855 Elk Mountain Mission during their first days in Moab.
The Utah Division of Facilities Construction and Management, The Archiplex Group and Advance Solutions Group accepted responsibility for the mistake and plan to make up for it, Utah Department of Administrative Services Public Information Officer Marilee Richins said. “Everybody is joining together,” she said. “We just want to make it right. It's just an unfortunate situation.”
Acting Moab City Engineer Eric Johanson said, “We don't want to be blamed unjustifiably.”
Both Olsen and Johanson said that the demolition plans were missing a “tree-protection layer”. “We were shocked, because for years, we've been meeting with the architects and engineers,” Johanson said. “Everyone is very aggrieved,” he added. “It saddens everyone.”
“Ultimately, we thought that given the complexity, it should have at least elicited a phone call to the architect or the city before they started cutting everything down,” Johanson said. “It is a park, after all.” “The damage was done before we could stop it,” said Olsen, who also serves as the city's arborist.
Almost immediately, Olsen switched gears and denigrated the recently removed trees. “Although stately Fremont cottonwoods are native to Utah and much of the West,” Olsen said, “they aren't the best choice for the site. To me, Fremonts are rickety". Their loose limbs also pose potential hazards in recreational park settings, he said; especially if they are situated above benches, picnic tables, playground areas and other “targets.” Apparently arborist Olsen had never considered providing drip irrigation, pest control or tree pruning. Stately Fremont Cottonwoods are the iconic, featured tree at Zion National Park Lodge in southwestern Utah.
After inspecting the collection of lifeless cottonwood stumps, Olsen continued his assault on the concept of replanting native trees at the park. Almost immediately, Olsen had found signs of decay, including hollowed-out trunks. “They have a substantial amount of rot,” he said. “Termites and carpenter ants have been doing their job to decompose them over time.”
Turning the whole episode into a lesson in public safety, Olsen told the press that it would have been just a matter of time before he made a recommendation to remove the trees. Then, resorting to bureaucratic “double speak”, Olsen said that he would not have given permission to remove the trees now, within three months of the park's grand reopening. Despite the danger that the old Fremont Cottonwood trees might represent, he would have allowed park visitors to picnic beneath them for an indefinite time into the future. As Moab's arborist, it was Olsen's duty to inspect and determine any risk that the existing trees might represent. Apparently he did that only in post mortem.
Continuing with his anti-native tree theme, Olsen said that he would like to replant with a combination of Bur oaks and Austrian pines at the new Lions Park. Looking at a ball field sized portion of the park that now looked like an extension of the nearby Moab Pile, Olsen said, “We wanted to make sure that it looked like a park, and not a barren desert". “When we have our grand opening, we're probably going to roast in the sun like bacon,” he said.
Once upon a time, people thought that Tamarisk (salt cedar) trees would make a nice frontage to the Colorado River in Moab. For the past twenty-five years, volunteers and government organizations have struggled to eliminate that ubiquitous and invasive tree species. Before any Lions Park taskforce approves replanting with non-native species, I hope that the powers that be in Moab will stop and do their due diligence. I pose the question, "What is the potential for Bur Oaks and Austrian Pines to become invasive species downstream, along the Colorado River? In the future, will Bur Oaks propagate and dominate the tree hierarchy in the soon to be re-exposed Glen Canyon? Replanting with stately Fremont Cottonwood trees along the riverbank and then nurturing them appears to be the safer bet.
In 2008, when the new Riverway Bridge opened nearby, I visited Lions Park and photographed a few historical features around the site. Most interesting to me was a masonry and wooden sign that faced out toward the intersection of U.S. Highway 191 and State Route 128. Lovingly hewn from Navajo Sandstone, its masonry structure was built to last for eons. Against its dark brown background, the word “MOAB” stood out proudly in white block letters. Below, the fading text told the story of Moab, from prehistory right up to the 1980s. This original Moab sign's first internet appearance was on MoabJim.com, as a photographic print for sale. Later, I included the Moab sign in one of my blog articles.
Each year, from 2008 to 2015, I revisited the site and photographed what I dubbed the “MOAB Sign”. As with most signs that face south in the desert, the white lettering weathered a bit more each year. Behind the sign, construction equipment servicing bridge, road and facilities construction came and went. Since 2008, there had been nonstop construction somewhere within a quarter mile of the MOAB Sign. By 2011, its historical text was flaking away, as was the history of the old Lions Club Park. Even so, the flaking word “MOAB” clung to the upper face of the sign.
While on a photographic mission to Lions Park in August 2013, I found that something was missing from the area. As it turned out, all of the historical highway-signs which once stood at the corner of State Route 128 and U.S. Highway 191 North were gone. Looking around the construction area, I discovered their grim remains. With complete disregard for Moab history, all of the old highway directional signs had been ripped out of the ground and dropped like so much scrap metal and plywood. As a preview of what might someday happen, that scrap pile was partially hidden behind the original “MOAB Sign”. Perhaps the myriad planning groups and consulting companies involved at Lions Park should have provided a "Sign Protection Layer" on their plans.
In April 2015, I visited the Lions Park and Transit Hub. Construction equipment and supplies still covered the historical birthplace of Moab. The equipment blocked my view of the old park, which was at lower elevation, down by the riverbank. Not until I read later news reports did I realize that Lions Club Park was already gone. To have bulldozed and scraped away every remnant and tree from the old park was not enough. As their last act of publically sanctioned vandalism, the destroyers of old Lions Club Park surreptitiously toppled and removed the original “MOAB Sign”. As the old monument crumbled to the ground, Moab closed one hundred sixty years of current-era history at the "Jumping off Place". To future visitors at the Moab Transit Hub, interpretive signs and faded photos will be their only link to a shady oasis that once stood down by the Colorado River.
As of this writing, Google Street View still shows a 2012 view of the intersection at State Route 128 and U.S. Highway 191 North. If you look closely at the linked image, you will see the Moab Sign. Someday, another Google camera-car will autonomously drive through that intersection, uploading digital images as goes. Once Google Street View replaces the old images with the new, the original MOAB Sign and historical Lions Club Park will disappear like a mirage in the desert.
This is Part 2 of a two-part article. To read Part 1, click HERE.
at 03:36 PM |
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The Modern History of Moab, Utah Began at the "Jumping Off Place"
On Sunday, June 10, 1855, members of the Mormon Elk Mountain Mission crossed the Grand River at a place near Moab, Utah. After crossing that torrent, their likely first camp was at a place that we now call the Moab “Lions Park Transit Hub”.
In the 1850s, there was no graceful concrete highway bridge or steel-truss pedestrian bridge at the site. Instead, the settlers found a “jumping off place”, which was a perpendicular ledge standing twenty-five feet above the river. In order to make the crossing, the men of the Elk Mountain Mission were obliged to “take their wagons to pieces” and lower them down by ropes. After ferrying their wagons and supplies across the river, the settlers made their first camp. Soon after, they built a stone and wooden fort in what is now the Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve.
During their spring and summer in Moab, misunderstandings between the Elk Mountain Mission and local Paiute or Southern Ute Indians escalated into a shooting war. Before the beginning of winter 1855, the Mormons lost several of their members to Indian bullets, clubs or arrows. With looming crop failure, unexpected flooding and a plague of mosquitoes along the river bend, the remaining members of the mission abandoned the area and high-tailed it back to Green River and then on to Salt Lake City before year's end.
In the 1880s, the commencement of ferryboat operations across the Colorado River at Moab enhanced the riverside location’s status as a “transit hub” for the humble settlement. Operating near the site of the present U.S. Highway 191 Bridge, the original, oar-powered ferryboat was only twenty-eight feet long. To prevent capsize, wagons were dismantled at the riverbank, ferried across and then reconstructed on the far side. Perhaps this is why early travelers called Moab "The Far Place". Until the early twentieth century, ferrying, fording or paddling remained the only modes of transport across the Colorado River at Moab.
In 1912, "slightly radioactive Vanadium" (having a half-life of > 3.9 x 10 to the 17th years) was discovered in nearby Cisco, Utah. Also that year, the Utah state legislature authorized funding for a triple-span steel bridge across the Colorado River at Moab. With a length of 620 feet, that first highway bridge opened up commerce from Moab to the north. The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad siding at Brendel, thirty miles to the north became a transit point for agricultural and manufactured goods. By the time refrigerated rail cars became available, Spanish Valley peaches, many larger than a softball, became famous in Eastern cities.
Although accurate flow measurements of the Colorado River were not available in 1912, locals knew from previous floods that the highway bridge should stand high above the river. As a testament to their prudent planning, a sandstone bridge abutment still stands on the north bank, as high and strong as the day it was finished, over one hundred years ago. On the south bank, the 1912 highway bridge terminated near the same spot where the current Riverway pedestrian bridge begins its own 620-foot span of the river.
Previously known to all as the Grand River, in 1921 Congress bowed to political pressure and erroneously renamed the currently recognized river as the "The Colorado River". Although it is a longer and stronger tributary to what we now call the Upper Colorado Basin, the Green River received no credit in the history books. Instead, the Colorado River became the politically correct source of the mighty river well-known for its creation of the Grand Canyon. Red, green; if you plan to recreate history on your own terms, what is the difference?
According to Moab native Mrs. Verlyn Westwood (1936-2009), there was once a guard shack on the north bank, across from what later would become Lions Club Park. During World War II, two men took turns guarding the old Colorado River highway bridge. With little vehicular traffic crossing the bridge at Moab, nighttime guard duty was lonely and quiet. On a night uncertain, a large boulder came loose from the canyon rim above. Without warning, the errant boulder crashed down upon the guard shack, crushing to death Otto Ellis, who was standing guard that night. Decades later, some local residents suggested the erection of a memorial plaque at that site.
If you research “Lions Club Park, Moab, Utah", there are few historical references to the place. For decades, a masonry and wooden historical sign stood at the park. The sign stood at a diagonal, facing the intersection of U.S. Highway 191 and Utah State Route 128. From its fading and flaking text, we know that the Lions were still adding improvements to the park well into the 1980s.
Sometime after its inception in 1940, the Lions Club of Moab adopted and named the park. With tacit blessings from the City of Moab and Grand County, the Lions Club installed pit toilets and built a kitchen building. From a paved parking lot, concrete walkways led to picnic tables, shaded by immense Fremont Cottonwood trees. With a natural water source nearby, the club created Lions Park Spring, which was lesser known than “Matrimony Spring”, just across State Highway 128. With its shady glen, lush trees and access to the Colorado River, it is easy to imagine many a local marriage celebrated at the park.
On Saturday, Sept. 24, 2005, from 1 to 3 PM, the Moab Lions Club celebrated its 75th anniversary at Lions Park. By then, the word “Club” had disappeared from the official name of the park. On that fall day in 2005, former members and Lions from neighboring communities joined local Lions for lunch and a program.
In 2007, the Moab Lions Club was active in the area. News reports indicate that Moab Lions members conducted a highway clean up in both the spring and fall, picking up trash along the highway between Lin Ottinger's Rock Shop and the Colorado River Bridge. In addition, the Moab Lions Club worked to clean up the Lions Park area, removing weeds and trash.
Planning for reconfiguration of the area around Lions Park had been underway since 2001. In 2003, Utah State University produced concept drawings of the area. In 2007, Grand County created a task force to develop recommendations for the project area. With help from the National Park Service, the task force became the Lions Park Planning Group (LPPG). The LPPG included Moab City, Grand County, National Park Service (NPS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Sovereign Lands, Trail Mix, Moab Trail Alliance and the Lions Club.
In May 2010, Moab Happenings published an article about the upgrading and expansion of Lions Park. Soon it would extend beyond its tiny niche on the east side of the highway bridge. The long-term goals got a boost with the opening of the Colorado Riverway Bridge in 2008. That 620-foot bicycle and pedestrian bridge took nine years of work, from concept to completion.
“Moab is about to lead the way in designing a ‘sustainable’ Lions Park at the Colorado River bridge,” Lions Park project leader Sharen Hauri, told a crowd. The reconstructed park was envisioned as an “oasis and gateway” to Moab. “We want to make this a world-class project that nobody will ever forget.”
Downstream from the Riverway Bridge, a new Colorado River highway bridge opened in 2011. That event added urgency to the redevelopment of the triangle of land known historically as Lions Club Park. The LPPG looked forward to trails, interpretive signs and facilities that would complete the central site, “It’s all going to be a showpiece,” Kim Schappert said. The project is referred to as “Lions Park: Gateway to Moab.”
“We want to allow people to connect to the Southwest and Moab in a way that is memorable forever,” said Reci Peterson, an interpretive planner and consultant for Psomas Design of Salt Lake.
The Grand County Historical Preservation Commission (HPC) proposed that the area be designated a historic district. HPC members argued for recognition of numerous cultural and archaeological resources and sites near the park. Included on their list were Matrimony Spring, the Moab Panel (Indian rock art), and the World War II bridge-guard station. Members of the HPC wanted recognition of a colorful history of river crossings by such parties as the Spanish conquistadors, early Native American traders, Anglo trappers, the 1855 Elk Mountain Mission and outlaws such as Butch Cassidy.
Presenters said that the Lions Park transit-trailhead hub would have as its focal point a “signature building” with a plaza full of interpretive stories and other information. Other features would include picnic tables by the river, grassy and shady areas for play and relaxation, sand and volleyball courts, plus water features using nearby natural springs. Plans included several pavilions for group events, and a gigantic “walk-over” map that park visitors could traverse to see where they are in relation to the river, mountains and geography of Southwest.
“This keeps getting better as time goes along,” Community Development Director Dave Olsen said.
This is Part 1 of a two-part article. To read Part 2, click HERE.
at 01:46 PM |
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Railroad vs. Motorist Collisions - An Escalating Disaster in Southern California
Early in the morning of February 24, 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.
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, five “rolling bomb” trains of eighty-cars each will begin their journey by traversing the Los Angeles basin every 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.
at 09:52 PM |
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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 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 crossing at North Del Norte Blvd.
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.
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 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 23, 2015, Jose Sanchez-Ramirez, 54, a recent transplant 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.
Originating from the East Ventura Metrolink Station at 5:25 AM that day, Metrolink Train No. 102 approached 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 was of the older, lighter and less crash-worthy design. 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.
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 42 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.
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 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 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 obsolete 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 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.
at 05:37 PM |
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