Crossing at scene of California rail crash was known rail hazard

By Michael Fleeman
An aerial view shows the scene of a double-decker Metrolink train derailment in Oxnard, California February 24, 2015. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Michael Fleeman

OXNARD, Calif. (Reuters) - The rail crossing where a California commuter train plowed into a truck on Tuesday was a known transportation hazard and the scene of a fatal accident as recently as last year, raising questions about why a highway overpass has not been built there.

Fifty people were injured in the fiery pre-dawn wreck in Oxnard, which flipped over three double-decker Metrolink rail cars and derailed two others. The Ford F450 pickup truck involved, which was hauling a trailer-load of welding equipment, was reduced to smoldering, burned-out wreckage.

The crossing where the crash took place, at an intersection set between warehouses and farm fields about 45 miles northwest of Los Angeles, has been a railway trouble spot for some time, according to officials and media reports.

"The last incident I know of was in June of 2014," Oxnard Mayor Tim Flynn told reporters on Tuesday. "I think there were two deaths at this intersection. A car traveling southbound hit a train and there were also fatalities."

Tuesday's crash, in which the driver appears to have turned accidentally onto the tracks in the pre-dawn darkness instead of crossing them, comes three weeks after a Metro-North commuter train struck a car at a crossing outside New York City and derailed, killing six people.

Robert Sumwalt of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the crash, said over 2,000 grade crossing accidents occur every year nationally, killing about 250 people.

"We are very concerned about grade crossings, and we intend to use this accident and others to learn from it so that we can keep it from happening again," the NTSB Board member told reporters.

FREIGHT CORRIDOR CONCERNS

The unusual junction at Oxnard combines a rail crossing and a road intersection. Signs warn motorists "Do Not Stop on Tracks" and there is a regular traffic light at the junction in addition to flashing red warning lights and crossing gates.

Drivers heading south on Rice Avenue, as the truck involved in the crash apparently was, pull into a right turn lane, cross the tracks, then make a quick right at the light onto Fifth Street, which runs parallel to the tracks.

Local lawmakers say federal funds are needed to construct an overpass for the crossing that was first proposed over a decade ago, estimated to cost more than $30 million.

Darren Kettle, executive director of the Ventura County Transportation Commission, said the area is one of the county's most important freight corridors, and has "significant" safety concerns.

"The location ... has really become the place where it is notorious for having an incident," Kettle told the Ventura County Star newspaper. He said he told visiting members of Congress about the project's importance as recently as Monday.

Mayor Flynn said it is hoped federal funds for a bridge will be forthcoming, with state and local financing.

"It's ongoing," Flynn told reporters. "It's been in the works for the last couple of years."

PREVIOUS ACCIDENTS AT THE SITE

The crossing has been the site of at least five other accidents involving trains since 2008, according to media reports.

Two men died in the 2014 crash after they failed to stop for a lowered crossing arm, the reports said, and an apparently confused motorist suffered non-life-threatening injuries in 2010 when she was hit by a commuter train while driving on the tracks.

That same year a car was rear-ended onto the tracks as a freight train approached, though the driver escaped with minor injuries before the train pushed the car 400 feet, media said.

In 2009, firefighters rescued an injured man from a pickup that was stuck on the tracks following a road collision seconds before a Metrolink train hit it.

No train passengers were hurt in those incidents, the reports said, but one woman suffered minor injuries in 2008 when she was among 55 passengers on a Metrolink train that struck a semi-trailer which had stopped on the tracks.

(Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb, Rory Carroll, Eric Johnson and Daniel Wallis; Editing by Steve Gorman, Robert Birsel and James Dalgleish)