$1.5 Million Allocated to Design a Railroad Grade Separation at Fifth St. & Rice Ave., Oxnard, California
In April 2015, I published an article regarding the March 24, 2015 Metrolink collision in Oxnard, California. That predawn collision injured thirty-three passengers and took the life of Metrolink Senior Engineer Glenn Steele. With its daily traffic count of 35,000 vehicles, the Fifth Street and Rice Avenue (Fifth & Rice) grade crossing already ranked as the deadliest in Ventura County. During my April 2015 visit to the site, I noted that the southbound Rice Ave. approach to the crossing remained as derelict as it was prior to the collision.
Since then, I have published a series of rail-safety articles, each of which mentioned specific unsafe conditions at Fifth & Rice. To be fair, Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) completed minor repairs to the traffic warning system and rebuilt a fence destroyed by the Metrolink cabcar during the collision. Now, thirteen months after the latest deadly collision at Fifth & Rice, the busy rail crossing still looks much as it has for decades.
In past articles, I have called out the UPRR, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), Rail Corridor Agency LOSSAN, Metrolink, the City of Oxnard and the Ventura County Transportation Commission (VCTC) for their sluggish response to the ongoing dangers at Fifth & Rice. Simple upgrades, such as repaving the Rice Ave. southbound approach, restriping its safety lines and adding additional pylons and street-level reflectors have not happened. Inexpensive changes of this type could militate against an accidental turn on to the UPRR tracks. It was just such a wrong turn that led to the 2015 Oxnard Metrolink collision.
According to evidence at the scene, all of the agencies listed in the previous paragraph dithered, delayed or ignored short-term fixes of the obvious deficiencies at Fifth & Rice. Meanwhile, one person made it her mission to help solve both the short-term and long-term safety issues existing there. That person is Congresswoman Julia Brownley (D-Westlake Village). Soon after the February 2015 Oxnard Metrolink collision, Brownley stepped up her communications with several agencies, including Caltrans, the CPUC and the Federal Railroad Administration.
In a March 2, 2015 letter to Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty and CPUC President Michael Picker, Brownley implored both agencies to free up some of the unallocated $42 million in federal safety grants then languishing within those agencies. On April 30, 2015, Dougherty wrote a letter to the Brownley, indicating that none of the rail grade crossings in Ventura County ranked high enough on the “priority diagnostic list” to warrant funding at this time.
In defense of CPUC actions, Dougherty sited $7.4 million in funds allocated to Ventura County in 2015. As the lead agency in the Sealed Corridor Project, Metrolink utilized those funds to upgrade warning and safety systems at three grade crossings in Simi Valley and another in Moorpark. Why Fifth & Rice, the busiest and deadliest commercial grade crossing in Ventura County received no mention or funding is a mystery of bureaucratic communications and cooperation.
In his April 30, 2015 letter to Brownley, Dougherty made the following statement: “The at-grade crossing at issue, on Rice Avenue in Oxnard, is equipped with median islands, quad gates, flashing lights, audible warning bells, and an interconnected traffic signal in addition to the required pavement markings and advance warning signage. Further improvements could be a grade separation. We will work with Ventura County to consider the State of California’s Section 190 Program as a possible funding source for this solution.”
Technically, everything that Dougherty wrote at that time is defensibly correct, but the actual conditions at that intersection are nowhere near as safe as state officials would have us believe. Here are my rebuttals, point by point:
“Median islands, quad gates, flashing lights, audible warning bells” – At the time of Dougherty’s letter, the support structure for the overhead warning lights, known as a crossbuck showed evidence of damage from an earlier traffic collision. Only after I published photos showing the perilous condition of the overhead safety equipment did the UPRR replace the entire unit.
“An interconnected traffic signal” – When a train approaches the crossing, the traffic signals on Rice Ave. turn red. The left turn signal from Fifth St. East to Rice Ave. North also turns red. When a train is present, those signals keep traffic northbound on Rice Ave. from crossing the tracks. Normally, the traffic signals approaching the tracks northbound work as intended.
“Interconnected traffic signal (cont.)” – Southbound on Rice Ave, the traffic signals do not provide adequate safety for vehicles stopping at Fifth St. The distance from the crosswalk at Fifth St. to the railroad tracks is less than fifty feet. As the major truck route to Naval Base Ventura County and the Port of Hueneme, hundreds of big rigs travel south on Rice Ave. every day. Inexperienced or unknowledgeable truck drivers often pull across the tracks and stop at the intersection, waiting there for a green light. While waiting there, the rear portion of a fifty-three foot long trailer overhangs the railroad tracks. If cross traffic prevented an idling tractor-trailer from moving forward in time, an approaching train could easily strike the trailer.
“Required pavement markings and advance warning signage” – On the southbound Rice Ave. approach, the pavement is cracked, rutted and generally worn out. Likewise, the pavement markings appear worn, cracked and faded. On approach to the tracks, there are no road reflectors of any kind, thus making a nighttime approach a disorienting experience for drivers unfamiliar with the intersection. Within a few yards of the tracks, there are two small signs reading, “Do Not Stop on Tracks”. Other than the crossbuck and the faded roadway markings, those two small signs are the only visual warnings for big rig drivers. The overhead crossbuck should include a lighted, flashing sign reading, “Big Rigs Stop Here on Red Signal”.
The cause of the February 2015 Oxnard Metrolink collision is not in dispute. Mr. Jose Sanchez-Ramirez mistook the railroad right-of-way for Fifth St. After making an errant right turn, Sanchez-Ramirez drove his work truck and utility trailer on to the railroad tracks. Eighty feet west of Rice Ave., his rig came to rest. Soon thereafter, Metrolink Train Number 102 struck the disabled truck, derailing all of the cars in the train, injuring thirty-three and ultimately causing the death of Senior Engineer Glenn Steele.
With the prevalence of faded or nonexistent roadway safety markings, it is easy to see how Sanchez-Ramirez made that mistake. Almost one year later, an unnamed agency installed one small reflective pylon near the curb, on either side of the tracks. Although intended to warn drivers not to turn on the tracks, the two pylons now appear to be the entrance to a small roadway, thus creating the opposite of the intended effect. To avoid continued confusion, especially at night, the responsible agency should immediately install multiple reflective pylons and a string of road reflectors spanning the railroad right of way.
In December 2015, President Obama signed a $305 billion highway bill, intended to keep our highway infrastructure from deteriorating even further. Within that bill was an allocation of $1.5 million designated for the initial design of a grade separation and highway overpass at Rice Ave. and Fifth St., in Oxnard, California. When no one else could, or would do anything substantial to solve the problems associated with that deadly grade crossing, Rep. Julia Brownley stepped up and secured that funding. In doing so, she created the first step toward ending the serial disaster that is the grade crossing at Fifth & Rice.
On March 29, 2016, politicians, bureaucrats and the press gathered at the Oxnard Transit Center to celebrate the $1.5 million federal grant. As several Amtrak trains whizzed by just a few yards away, representatives from the Federal Railroad Administration, Caltrans, the Ventura County Transportation Commission, the City of Oxnard and Metrolink all spoke about the need for safety improvements at Fifth & Rice. With no half-cent sales tax levy in Ventura County focused on transportation projects, none of the speakers mentioned that it might take ten years to secure funding for the $42 million grade separation and overpass. Still, the conclave and its message amounted to a small step in the right direction.
After the close of the public ceremony in Oxnard, I once again visited the dangerous intersection at Fifth St. and Rice Ave. With news cameras from several Los Angeles TV outlets rolling, a Metrolink official and I watched typical midday traffic at the grade crossing. In less than thirty minutes, a local freight train traveled north and an Amtrak train traveled south along the tracks. In the interval between the two trains, at least one big rig stopped for the southbound signal at Rice Ave. For more than one minute, its trailer blocked the tracks.
Moments later, as the Metrolink representative and I looked on, a late model Camaro approached the tracks southbound on Rice Ave. As the traffic signal changed to amber, the driver sped up to perhaps fifty-five miles per hour. After the Camaro crossed the tracks, it briefly went airborne, and then landed hard in the middle of Fifth St. From there, it continued at high speed. In my mind, I pictured that driver seeing flashing red lights at that grade crossing. Would he have skidded to a stop or tried to drive under the safety gates as they descended? In 2009, motorist Joel Anthony Arias, 20, tried to beat a train to the same crossing. Both he and his passenger died in a high-speed collision with an Amtrak train.
Several days after the ceremony, Julia Brownley continued her efforts to seek interim solutions to the safety problems at Fifth & Rice. In a letter to one of the passengers injured in the 2015 Oxnard Metrolink collision, Brownley’s staff members wrote; “Ms. Brownley has visited the site, and has been trying to get the state to address the marking issue. In fact, she spoke to CPUC President Picker about the need to improve the markings. At Ms. Brownley’s urging, CPUC sent a team to inspect the crossing. Ms. Brownley requested that our District Director accompany them during the inspection. Our District Director pointed out the deficiencies in the markings, and showed them pictures of other crossings that had new, more visible, reflective markings. We also provided those photos to President Picker. The CPUC team is preparing a report based on that inspection, and we have requested a copy.”
Now, over one year after the death of Senior Engineer Glenn Steele and the injury of dozens more, we begin to see some small steps toward increasing public safety at the deadliest grade crossing in Ventura California. When no one else could or would address rail safety at the street level, Brownley and her staff persisted in their advocacy and actions. On behalf of all who must cross the tracks at Fifth & Rice, I offer special thanks to Congresswoman Julia Brownley and her dedicated staff.