Fifth Street at Las Posas Road Now the Deadliest Rail Crossing in Ventura County
April 21, 2016, the Fifth Street at Las Posas Road grade crossing in Camarillo, California regained the title of “Deadliest Rail Crossing in Ventura County”. Around 6 PM, Garrett Vongunten, 26, piloted his 2015 Harley Davidson motorcycle south on Las Posas Road toward Fifth Street. On the rear seat, Nadya Unger, 23, rode as his passenger. With the late afternoon sun in their eyes, they approached the railroad crossing at an undetermined speed.
At 4:33 p.m. that day, Metrolink Train No. 117 had departed Los Angeles Union Station, heading toward its final destination at the East Ventura Station. Near 6:00 PM, the train approached Las Posas Road from the east at normal speed, which can be as high as seventy miles per hour.
If the traffic control system operated properly at the grade crossing, the approaching train would activate warning bells, flashing lights and crossing gates to warn vehicular traffic of an oncoming train. According to Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) guidelines, the rail crossing gates should be down at least twenty seconds prior to a train crossing Las Posas Road.
For reasons that included impairment from unspecified drugs and possible excessive speed, Vongunten may have seen the warning lights and gates too late to stop safely. As a result, Vongunten’s motorcycle broke through the crossing gate arm and struck the side of the Metrolink train. Passenger Nadya Unger died at the scene and Vongunten sustained critical injuries, including partial loss of one leg. The motorcycle, missing its operator, its passenger and its front wheel, came to rest upright, facing in the opposite direction of original travel. "You could assume that the motorcycle wasn't in the middle of the track per se because of the location that it ended up," California Highway Patrol officer Gregory Bowcock told the Ventura County Star newspaper.
With the collision unseen by the Metrolink engineer, Train No. 117 proceeded to the Oxnard Transit Center, which was its next scheduled stop. Prior to arrival in Oxnard, a passenger who had witnessed the collision notified the train’s conductor of the event. Metrolink held the train in Oxnard until officials could inspect it for signs of damage. A preliminary report indicated that there was evidence of a side impact, including motorcycle parts embedded into a coach and blood on the side of that coach.
In recent years, there have been multiple train collisions on the Oxnard Plain. In February 2015, a train collision at the Fifth St. and Rice Ave. grade crossing in Oxnard took the life of Metrolink Senior Engineer Glenn Steele. By that time, Fifth & Rice had gained notoriety as the “deadliest rail crossing in Ventura County”. In recognition of the many deaths and injuries at Fifth & Rice, Congresswoman Julia Brownley (D-Westlake Village) secured $1.5 million in federal funds for the design of a grade separation at that location.
With the recent death of Nadya Unger, the Las Posas Road and Fifth Street grade crossing now takes the mantel as “deadliest rail crossing in Ventura County”. Here is a chronology of four prior rail collisions at Fifth & Las Posas:
- At 10:49 AM on December 30, 2013, as an Amtrak train passed by, a car entered the grade crossing at Fifth St. and Las Posas Rd. The driver of the vehicle died at the scene and a nearby railroad service worker received injuries resulting from the accident.
- At 10:30 AM on January 24, 2014, crews responded to a train collision at Fifth St. and Las Posas Rd. A seventy-seven year old woman who drove her minivan into the side of a passing Amtrak train succumbed to her injuries at the scene.
- At 8:25 AM on April 23, 2015, a Union Pacific freight train collided with an SUV at the intersection of Fifth St. and Las Posas Rd. The driver, a fifty-seven year old man, drove through the crossing gate arm and into the side of the freight train. The driver succumbed to his injuries at the scene.
- At 10:30 AM on November 21, 2015, a twenty-three year old man drove his drove his car through the crossing gate and into the side of a moving Amtrak train at Fifth St. and Las Posas Rd. At the time of the collision, the crossing gate arm was down and the safety lights were flashing. The driver died days later at a local medical center.
In less than three years, there have been five fatal train collisions at Fifth & Las Posas. The common denominator of all five collisions was that the crossing gates were down, warning lights were flashing and bells were ringing. Even so, each ill-fated vehicle entered the railroad right of way and collided with a moving train. There is no evidence that any one of the five most recent fatal accidents at Fifth & Las Posas was a suicide.
Unlike the Fifth & Rice grade crossing, the Fifth & Las Posas grade crossing has only the minimal safety features mandated by law. At the tracks, Rice Ave. is a divided road, with overhead safety lights, signage, and four crossing gates intended to seal the rail corridor from errant vehicles. At the tracks, Las Posas Rd. is undivided, with no overhead safety signage and only two crossing gates. Even if the gates were down, a driver could cross over the double-yellow lines and drive around the crossing gates. To the unsuspecting driver, the Las Posas Rd. southbound approach to Fifth St. looks like a little-used rural grade crossing.
On Friday April 22, 2016, one day after the death of Nadya Unger and the critical injury Garrett Vongunten, the Ventura County Transportation Commission (VCTC) voted to support a half-cent transportation sales tax for Ventura County. Nineteen of the fifty-eight counties in California have such a tax, including all the major counties in Southern California. If it makes the November 2016 ballot, the measure will still require approval by a two-thirds majority of county voters. If it passes that hurdle, the new sales tax will provide $70 million annually, earmarked for transportation improvement projects within Ventura County.
Five fatal train collisions at Fifth St. and Las Posas Rd. should be enough to place that grade crossing at the top of Ventura County transportation improvement projects. Suggested improvements include realigning Las Posas Rd. to make it a divided road as it crosses the tracks, installing overhead warning signs and creating a four-gate system of vehicle barriers. Although foot traffic is light at that location, the new safety plan should include sidewalks and pedestrian gates there, as well.
Proposed upgrades to the rail crossing will not stop speeders from trying to beat a train to the crossing nor end inattentive driving, but they will increase the chances that motorists will receive warning in time to stop safely at Fifth & Las Posas for an oncoming train. I hope that public officials throughout Ventura County support a half-cent sales tax dedicated solely to transportation improvement projects.