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Which Ones Are the Bad Guys?

The following story about how our public safety has been protected by nabbing railroad crossing scofflaws is only part of the story. Here is the rest:

The intersection at Wright Avenue and Harbor Way South where the RPD described people cutting it too close does not even have gates, bells and lights. It only has a couple of wood “cross-bucks” because the railroad is too cheap to install state of the art safety devices, and this is probably one of the least safe grade crossings in the city because the tracks cross diagonally and block four streets. The railroad is simply too cheap to install crossing protections, and their lobbyists have succeeded in passing that entire cost on the federal, state and local governments.

There’s more. The poor guy waiting at the crossing didn’t know whether he should stop or go because there are no gates. He probably also knew that if he didn’t make a dash for it, he might spend the next 30 minutes waiting for a mile-long train moving at a snail’s pace to clear the crossing.

The crossings at 1st Street and Wright Avenue/Harbor Way South are on a part of BNSF trackage called the “Siberia Lead,” where BNSF runs mile-long trains that travel at about 10 mph all day long and all night long. The tracks have so many curves they can’t go any faster. There is no history of accidents at these crossings because of the slow speeds involved and the single tracks. I can’t believe BNSF drove engines up and down the Siberia Lead all day long so the RPD could write tickets. Must have been a slow crime day in Richmond. Personally, I would like to see the RPD spend more time writing tickets on BNSF for blocking crossings too long and blowing their horns illegally. That’s the real problem around here, including the public safety problem of blocking or delaying fire trucks, police cars and ambulances.

People cut it close at grade crossings and sometimes even run the gates because the BNSF technology is so primitive that gates often go down for no reason or they go down when a train is hundreds of feet away traveling at a crawl. We old-timers call it “railroad roulette.” And people don’t want to get stuck waiting for 30 minutes.

According to the following West County Times article, "People don't want to wait the couple of minutes it takes for the train to pull through the crossing," said Lena Kent, spokeswoman for the BNSF Railway Co.” I don’t know what planet Lena is from, but the typical wait in south Richmond is a lot more than a couple of minutes.

Having said all that, I would never encourage anyone to take a chance or disobey the law at a grade crossing. Unlike the Siberia Lead, the trains that run on the UP (Union Pacific) tracks and the BNSF tracks in North Richmond travel at much higher speeds on double tracks. People are killed at these crossings every year. The railroad companies should be required to participate in financing safety improvements, but with their political power, they pass all these costs on to the public. Just another public subsidy for a private business.

Burlington Northern (BNSF) is not exactly hurting economically with 2008 annual revenue of $18 billion, net income $2 billion, assets $36 billion and equity $11 billion (http://www.bnsf.com/investors/investorreports/4Q_2008_Investors_Report.pdf).

BNSF, Richmond police team to ticket train-crossing scofflaws

By Karl Fischer
West County Times

Posted: 03/24/2009 08:21:07 PM PDT

Updated: 03/24/2009 08:22:46 PM PDT


The driver idled near the intersection of Harbour Way and Wright Avenue in south Richmond, listening to the bellicose horn blare, and eyeing a massive orange engine trundle up the tracks.

Train neared. Car idled 

Then, as if prompted by some sudden mental gear-shifting, car rolled deliberately through the intersection ahead of train.

"Naw, I let him go with a warning. He looked like he was about 90," Richmond motorcycle Officer Ramon Middleton said with a chuckle. "But that second guy, he cut it so close that I had to let the other officer (on the other side of the tracks) get him."

Richmond police wrote tickets for 13 drivers and pedestrians and warned several others about cutting it too close around rail crossings Monday afternoon, part of Burlington Northern Santa Fe's ongoing national effort to raise public awareness about the danger of toying with simple physics just to shave time off the commute.

BNSF ran an engine up and down its lines through town for several hours to facilitate the enforcement.

"People don't want to wait the couple of minutes it takes for the train to pull through the crossing," said Lena Kent, spokeswoman for the BNSF Railway Co., watching the line near the corner of South First Street and Cutting Boulevard. "Even while we were standing here, we just saw a car round the track in front of the engine."

Richmond, like many cities in the West, grew up around its railroad tracks. They criss-cross

the guts of the city, dividing heavily populated neighborhoods in the south and central parts of town.

Well-beaten footpaths lead locals across weedy rail easements every day on their way to work or school, especially in well-trafficked corridors such as the intersection of Carlson and Cutting boulevards, or the parallel tracks that divide North Richmond from Rumrill Boulevard in San Pablo.

Perhaps because trains become part of the static landscape in such cities, it's easy for those who grow up here to forget that the enormous, hurtling chunks of metal that the rails carry are not really static at all.

"People just don't realize how difficult it is to stop a train," Kent said. "In downtown Richmond they move at relatively low speeds, but it still takes a long distance. A train moving at 55 mph needs a mile and a half to stop."

And even low-speed collisions with such massive objects cause terrible damage. In the past year, local police have investigated collisions and near misses involving both cars and pedestrians. Five died in Contra Costa County train collisions last year, according to coroner's records.

Railroads work hard to educate both the public and municipal authorities about common-sense safety, through programs such as Operation Lifesaver, an international nonprofit that sponsors a wide range of curriculum and law enforcement efforts like the one held in Richmond on Monday.

BNSF worked with police in San Bernadino and Riverside earlier this month, resulting in 85 and 75 tickets, mostly to motorists trying to beat the train. Their efforts seem to be paying off, Kent added, noting that her company reported this week that trespassing incidents on rail easements around the country decreased 19 percent during January and February compared with the same period last year.

"It's so important for people to know," Kend added, "that if it's a tie, the train is going to win."

Reach Karl Fischer at 510-262-2728 or kfischer@bayareanewsgroup.com.