Chapter #339: Ventura County Rail Deaths Scandal - December 4, 2015

An overhead view of Las Posas Road and Fifth Street, Camarillo California soon after a recent Amtrak rail collision - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Las Posas Road, Camarillo, CA - An Ongoing Rail Crossing Deathtrap

On February 23, 2015, a Metrolink passenger train struck a Ford F-450 work truck and trailer at the intersection of Fifth St. and Rice Ave. near Oxnard, California. Scores of passengers were injured and one week later, Senior Engineer Glenn Steele succumbed to his injuries. Dismayed by the number of recent rail collisions at that site, I researched and wrote about that grade crossing and its many safety deficiencies. Later, I created a website that featured both problems and solutions for that troubled location at www.5thandrice.com.

Minimal safety features and many distractions are evident at the 5th & Rice grade crossing in Oxnard, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)U.S. Representative Julia Brownley (D-Agoura Hills) has taken a special interest in the 5th & Rice Grade crossing. Recently, through her staff, she contacted Mr. Marc Gerstel, a person injured in the February 2015 collision. Brownley’s office told Gerstel that the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) would soon visit the site and conduct a safety evaluation at the Fifth and Rice grade crossing. If so, that would be the first substantive action taken by any public agency or corporation involved with the operation and safety of that deadly grade crossing.

The Fifth and Rice grade crossing in Oxnard is both the busiest and the most hazardous commercial rail crossing in Ventura County. In the past decade, it has produced more rail related deaths and injuries than any other crossing in the county. Even so, two grade crossings in nearby Camarillo now vie for the title of “deadliest rail crossing in Ventura County”.

Amtrak, Metrolink and Union Pacific Railroad share the Coast Line across the Oxnard Plain in Ventura County, California. All three have experienced collisions with vehicles in that area - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)At 5:50 AM on August 24, 2012, between Pleasant Valley Road and Las Posas Road, a Metrolink passenger train bound for Los Angeles struck a semi-truck and trailer that had slowed to make a turn into a nearby farm field. In that collision, both the truck driver and his passenger sustained non-fatal injuries.

On December 30, 2013 at 10:49 AM, as an Amtrak train was passing by, a car entered the grade crossing at Fifth Street and Las Posas Road. The resulting collision sent the car into the side of a railroad service truck, which was standing nearby. The driver of the first vehicle died at the scene and the railroad service worker received injuries resulting from the accident.

The Amtrak Surfliner in Moorpark California, heading at full speed toward the Oxnard Plain - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)On January 24, 2014 at 10:30 AM, crews responded to a train collision at Fifth Street and Las Posas Road in Camarillo. At that grade crossing, a seventy-seven year old woman drove her minivan into the side of a passing Amtrak train. The driver, identified as Misty Jill Wood succumbed to her injuries at the scene. A Union Pacific Railroad worker in a nearby truck received moderate injuries. There were no injuries among the passengers on the northbound Amtrak Pacific Surfliner train.

On the evening of March 1, 2015, less than two weeks after the Oxnard Metrolink collision, a passenger vehicle stopped on the tracks at Fifth Street and Pleasant Valley Road in Camarillo. Moments after the two occupants of the passenger car exited the vehicle; an Amtrak passenger train heading for Los Angeles struck and sent the mangled vehicle into a nearby ditch. No injuries resulted from the collision.

The deadly grade crossing at Las Posas Road and Fifth Street, Camarillo, California - Photo courtesy of Google Streetview - Click for larger image (http://jmaesmcgillis.com)At 8:25 AM on April 23, 2015, less than two months after the Oxnard Metrolink collision, a Union Pacific freight train collided with a white Ford Explorer at the intersection of Fifth Street and Las Posas Road in Camarillo. Driver Timothy Newhouse, a fifty-seven year old man from Rialto, California drove through the crossing gate arm and into the side of the freight train. According to officers called to the scene, the vehicle rolled three or four times before coming to a rest in a nearby ditch. The driver succumbed to his injuries at the scene. There were no other injuries.

At 2:05 PM on September 21, 2015, a pedestrian stepped on to the tracks near Fifth Street and Pleasant Valley Road in Camarillo. Moments later, a moving Amtrak train struck and killed that pedestrian. The incident appeared to be a suicide, but detectives responded to investigate. There was little else reported about that deadly incident.

As seen at this location in Moorpark, vehicle skid marks, worn safety markings and minimum standard safety devices are hallmarks of most grade crossings in Ventura County, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)At 10:30 AM on November 21, 2015, the latest in a string of deadly train collisions occurred at the Fifth Street and Las Posas Road grade crossing in Camarillo. According to the California Highway Patrol, at the time of the collision, the crossing gate arm was down and the safety lights were flashing. For unknown reasons, Mr. Brian Kuczynski, twenty-three, of Camarillo drove his car through the crossing gate and into the side of a moving Amtrak train. After Kuczynski's car hit the crossing arm and moving train, it travelled 171 feet and into a nearby ditch. Flown by helicopter to Los Robles Hospital & Medical Center in Thousand Oaks with major injuries Kuczynski later died. There were no other injuries.

The infamous Fifth Street and Rice Avenue grade crossing in Oxnard still holds the record in Ventura County. In that regard, it is the worst of the worst throughout the Oxnard Plain. Still, in little more than the past three years, seven train collisions at either Pleasant Valley Road or Las Posas Road grade crossings resulted in five deaths and four injuries. If this pace continues, we can expect an average of two additional fatalities at the Las Posas and Pleasant Valley rail crossings each year.

In Ventura County it is common to see vehicles stop on the active railroad tracks of the Union Pacific Pacific Coast Line - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Assuming that only the pedestrian fatality at Pleasant Valley Road was a suicide, why have so many motorists collided with moving trains at those two crossings? It is easy enough to pass off these collisions to inattentive or distracted drivers. With mobile telephones, voice activated apps, GPS navigation systems and sound-deadening insulation in our vehicles; it is easy to become self-absorbed and inattentive to unexpected safety threats. When driving across the Oxnard Plain, verdant strawberry and vegetable fields, light traffic and hazy morning sunshine can lull a motorist into a false sense of security.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FAR) sets the minimum standards for railroad grade crossings. The minimum requirements include a “crossbuck”, which is a large “X” shaped sign that reads “Railroad – Crossing”, at least two flashing red lights adjacent to the crossbuck and appropriate painted safety lines in the roadway. This configuration applies to both directions of travel. At the Fifth and Rice crossing, there is an additional red warning signal. It resides on a horizontal strut that extends from the crossbuck mast over one lane of southbound Rice Ave. traffic. Additionally, automatic gates descend to block the roadway whenever a train approaches. As such, all three of the grade crossings in question meet only the 1986 minimum federal standards for “active traffic control devices” at multi-lane grade crossings.

Developed as a safety warning sign for motorists in the early twentieth century, the "crossbuck" is still included in every highway rail crossing in the country - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Although revised in 2007, the bulk of the Federal Highway Administration’s “Railroad-Highway Grade Crossing Handbook” derives from the 1986 version of that document. In essence, “active traffic control devices” have changed little in the past thirty years. In the 1986 update, the Federal Highway Administration responded to rapid urbanization and concomitant increases in both vehicular and train traffic across the country. Until that time, passive warning systems were the norm.

Beginning with the 1986 standards, there was an attempt to update warning light systems beyond the legacy systems still utilized in many rural and urban locations. Looking back at the history of warning lights, the first active warning system consisted of a railroad worker swinging a red lantern back and forth to warn motorists of an approaching train. Later railroad safety engineers introduced the “wig wag”, which featured a pendulum arm that contained a red warning light. As a train approached, the lighted wig wag signal swung back and forth. In doing so, the wig wag mimicked a railroad worker's lantern swinging at arm's length.


Watch as old Southern Pacific Locomotive No. 3100
departs the station at Orange Empire Railroad Museum.

The major improvement in 1986 was to require two red warning lights that flashed in sequence. The timing of the flashes mimicked both a wig wag and the railroad lantern of old. Despite the advent of light emitting diodes (LEDs), most flashing light signals still utilize low wattage bulbs, varying from 16 to 36 watts. Even with reflectors behind the low wattage bulbs, a light within the dark red glass of the “roundel” can be difficult to see during daylight hours. Over eight percent of men experience color blindness in the red spectrum. That means that almost one man in twelve might see a flashing signal light, but not detect it as a red warning light.

Part of the "Sealed Corridor Project" in Ventura County California the new safety warning system at Sycamore Ave and Los Angeles Ave. includes LED safety lights, pedestrian gates and additional safety gates for vehicles - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The automated safety gates found at “active traffic control grade crossings” create another area of concern. Designed to activate not more than three seconds after the safety warning lights begin to flash, the motorized gates take time to arrive at their “down position”. So long as the gates are down prior to the arrival of a moving train, they meet legal requirements. Regardless of a gate length of up to thirty-eight feet, only three red lights are required to meet federal standards. The red light at the tip of the gate arm burns steadily, while the other two flash alternately.

If we were to recreate a mid-morning scene of a typical Las Posas Road train collision, here is what the errant driver might see. Approaching the tracks from the north, the morning sun would be coming in the driver’s side window, possibly dazzling his or her eyes. As the train approaches at full speed, it might appear as a dot on the horizon or not be visible at all. Whether distracted, speeding or fully attentive, the driver may or may not see the two low-wattage red warning lights flashing in their roundels. Likewise, the driver may not see the slender gate arm descend from vertical to its horizontal (closed) position. By the time the driver notices the flashing lights, the safety gate and the train, it may too late to avoid a catastrophic collision.

The Amtrak Surfliner, seen here at Chatsworth Station in the San Fernando Valley is a high speed passenger train that traverses the dangerous grade crossings in the Oxnard Plan several times each day - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Much has changed since enactment of the 1986 grade crossing standards. Our driving experience now includes cup holders, mobile telephones, integrated information and entertainment systems, and texting while driving. The result is a quantum leap in potential distractions available to drivers today. The attitude of many who comment on relevant websites is “drivers beware”. If you drive into the side of a moving train, it is probably your fault, they write. Your own death or dismemberment, they say, proves their point. In reality, the FRA minimum standard developed for grade crossings in 1986 are often insufficient to warn motorists of impending collisions with moving trains.

The author, James McGillis, with safety advocates Coney the Traffic Cone and Plush Kokopelli at the infamous Fifth & Rice Grade Crossing in Oxnard, CA - Click fro larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)With five of the recent train collisions at Las Posas Road and Fifth Street happening between 8:30 AM and 2:30 PM, further assessment of both natural light and traffic control signal lighting is in order. With Fifth Street creating a buffer for northbound vehicular traffic, almost all of the Las Posas Road train collisions involve southbound vehicular traffic. From morning until midafternoon, the sun may interfere with the driver’s ability to see the obsolete warning signals and other faded safety markings at Las Posas Rd., Pleasant Valley Rd. and Rice Ave. grade crossings.

Perhaps the pending CPUC investigation of the Rice Avenue grade crossing will give impetus Sealed Corridor traffic safety features at the three most deadly railroad grade crossings in Ventura County. In the interest of safety for all who travel the Oxnard Plain in motor vehicles and passenger trains, I hope so.

Email James McGillis
Email James McGillis


By James McGillis at 05:12 PM | Railroad Safety | Comments (0) | Link

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