VALLEY METROLINK TRACKS CALLED... `SHORTCUT TO DANGER' NORTHEAST STRETCH IS DEADLIEST.
Metrolink trains have killed nearly as many people on the two lines running through the San Fernando Valley as in the rest of the five-county system, a Daily News analysis of records shows.
Since the commuter service started a decade ago, 22 people have died on the Antelope Valley line that runs through the Valley to downtown Los Angeles, and a dozen others have been killed on the Ventura County line, which also runs through the Valley to downtown.
By far the deadliest stretch along Metrolink's 511 miles of track is in the Northeast Valley, where 15 of the 75 deaths have occurred.
Officials said the No. 1 cause of incidents in the densely populated business and residential neighborhoods in Sun Valley, Pacoima and Sylmar is people trying to cut across the tracks where as many as 30 trains a day can speed through at up to 79 mph.
``The train travels through an area that is largely residential on one side, and business and industry on the other,'' Metrolink spokeswoman Sharon Gavin said. ``It's a natural magnet for people to cross to get to schools, to businesses, to jobs.
``The tracks are not a shortcut - but a shortcut to danger.''
Within a month of its opening in October 1992, Metrolink's first fatality occurred at San Fernando Road and Del Sur Street in Pacoima, where a city dump truck driver pulled onto the tracks at a private, unmarked crossing.
Fourteen other people have died along that stretch since then, most of them pedestrians. Two men were killed Sept. 26, 1994 - one in the morning, the other that night - as they tried to cross the tracks.
Four people have died at the Sunland Avenue crossing in Sun Valley, where the train roars past a busy area lined with restaurants, shops, pedestrians and motorists.
Concern about safety arose again Jan. 6, when a train carrying morning commuters plowed into a truck that turned into its path on the line in Burbank, killing the motorist and injuring 32 Metrolink passengers.
``In the morning time, it's so fast,'' said the longtime manager of the Swift Stop market at the Sunland intersection.
She cringed at the mention of the trains, and suggests that they could slow down.
``That would be good. That would be safe for everybody,'' said Mei Ling H., who didn't want to give her surname.
Metrolink spotted trouble early on along the north-south Antelope Valley route, where 78 motorists were cited for crossing violations during the system's first 13 days of operation. Among the Valley intersections where violators were cited were Sunland and Van Nuys boulevards - crossings that continue to be problems.
By 1996, the rail line had sturdy fences along 12.2 miles of track to prevent pedestrians from crossing the tracks or walking the rails, as a group of young boys does in the 1986 hit movie ``Stand By Me.''
`Areas of concern'
Metrolink now keeps a running list of the top five ``Areas of Concern'' and sends its team of safety experts to schools, community centers and driver training groups to warn the public about the dangers. Various Valley intersections, including those on the Ventura County line, regularly make the list.
In September, Metrolink posted 700 billboards in English and Spanish in the Valley, warning the community of the dangers - part of an annual campaign to target one area with public-service announcements.
Metrolink says it's doing all it can to keep the lines safe within its nearly $100 million operating budget.
Ideally, it would run trains above or below intersections, but grade-separation projects can cost up to $50 million each.
Instead, officials appeal to the public - noting it takes the average train at least one-third of a mile to stop once the emergency brake is pulled.
``Certainly grade separation is the ideal, and is what we would all like to work toward, but the tools we have to keep people safe are education, education, education,'' Gavin said.
The Southern California Regional Rail Authority started operating Metrolink in October 1992, running 12 trains in three counties. It now operates 138 trains a day across Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, and part of northern San Diego County.
The north-south line cutting diagonally across the Valley was among the first to open, carrying commuters between the northern suburbs and downtown.
The 76.6-mile Antelope Valley line has reported 22 deaths over the past 10 years, the most in the system. The Riverside line, which opened the next year and now extends 58.7 miles, was the next highest with 16.
Eighteen of those killed along the Antelope Valley line were pedestrians - people walking on or across the tracks. In 1994, three were killed in one incident at a Glendale underpass. Another fatality that year, at Sunland, involved a bicyclist. Suicides are counted separately.
In addition to those killed, 13 people suffered injuries when they were hit by trains. No injuries were reported in an additional 53 incidents in which vehicles or pedestrians were hit by trains.
Combined with the nine deaths in the Burbank, Glendale, Valley and eastern Ventura County portion of the Ventura County line that runs across the region, the Valley area has sustained 38 percent of the Metrolink fatalities since the system began, according to records.
``The San Fernando Valley is an area where Metrolink has had a lot of difficulties, paid a lot of attention and done a lot of good stuff,'' said Eric Jacobsen, president and California coordinator of the nonprofit safety group Operation Lifesaver.
``San Fernando Valley, out there, is a tough one ... The very best situation you can have with rail and people is to not have them exist,'' he said. ``The limitation, of course, is economic. No. 1, it's very expensive.''
Jacobsen said the Valley suffers from having more and more trains running through a densely populated area.
It's a similar problem statewide, he said, with more trains now than ever in the state's history - and California leading the nation in pedestrian fatalities on the tracks.
``In California, rail is expanding at such a phenomenal rate, we're having a hard time keeping up with the education part of it,'' Jacobsen said.
``All of these lines that you're talking about have had increased train travel, tremendously increased, in the past 10 years.''
Still, critics say Metrolink could be doing more to protect the public, starting with slowing the trains down and putting in more crossing gates.
Longtime Los Angeles rail critic John Walsh said his group is calling for a peer-review safety panel to look into Metrolink's operations after the crash in Burbank.
He says Metrolink doesn't want to risk slower trains because it might lose impatient suburban commuters, who number just under 20,000 a day on the Antelope Valley line where trains average 41 mph, compared with 37 mph on the county's freeways.
``Commuters are interested in one thing - speed,'' said Walsh, a member of the whistle-blower group LATWICE. ``They don't want to bite the bullet and slow the trains down.''
He said Metrolink should put in four-arm crossing gates at intersections as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority did in a pilot project on its Blue Line light-rail system.
He also says Metrolink should stop running its trains in the so-called push formation - with the locomotive in the rear, as was the case in the fatal Jan. 6 crash - because it can be hard for pedestrians and motorists to tell whether the train is coming or going.
But Metrolink, which operates under regulations set by the Federal Railroad Administration and the state Public Utilities Commission, dismisses most calls for changes, saying it's simply up to the public to stay off the tracks.
``The railroad tracks have been there 100 years, the trains don't go off the track looking for people. If (people) don't go on the tracks there'd be no incidents,'' said Roger Mowrey, Metrolink's manager of safety and security. ``The only part we can do is educate.''
Metrolink trains are federally regulated to go no more than 80 mph, a speed set by the quality of the track, and Mowrey said how fast a train runs has no effect on the incident rate.
He also said the push configuration is allowed under federal regulations and has not been found to pose a danger to the engineers or the public.
Four-arm quad gates can cost up to $500,000 per intersection, according to the PUC, and Metrolink could not say whether it would be considering more of those in the future.
And while Metrolink has installed fences along the route in a multimillion-dollar project funded by a MTA grant in 1996, securing the entire route would be too expensive, Gavin said.
Officials said some people who walk the track wrongly believe that trains always use one line going one direction and another for the return trip.
Getting rid of at-grade crossings would be the ideal, but at up to $50 million for the most-expensive intersections, it's not likely, Metrolink said. The state PUC allocates between $10 million to $15 million annually statewide to convert at-grade intersections based on statewide priority.
The regulators, for the most part, agree.
``For the people that say we need quad gates and we need all sorts of warning crossings, the facts are the facts - meaning people make a choice. People make a choice to try to get around the gate,'' said the FRA's Robert L. Gould.
``The rails are considered private property. When people are on them, they are trespassing. The onus is on the public to exercise extreme caution when they're walking - don't take shortcuts.
``The motoring public needs to treat highway rail crossings like they would an intersection where there's a stoplight or stop sign,'' he said. ``Always expect a train.''
Last year, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, hired by Metrolink to patrol its tracks, cited 56 motorists for breaking the law on the tracks - 33 for going through the gates and 23 for stopping beyond the limit line.
Deputies also cited 1,997 pedestrians for trespassing on the tracks - down from 2,183 in 2001 and 2,930 in 2000.
On Wednesday, deputies are planning a crackdown on violators along a stretch through the Santa Clarita Valley.
Those involved in collisions or crashes have little recourse - just one to two lawsuits a year are filed against the agency on behalf of those hit by trains, officials said.
Walsh praised Metrolink's safety campaigns, but says it's not enough to keep Los Angeles' ever-increasing population safe from collisions.
``They've done an enormous amount of education, but the problem is the transiency, the new people,'' he said.
``You are not going to idiot-proof any system. If you slow the trains down you reduce the near-misses, you reduce the accidents. For the people who ignore all the rules, what you want to do is give them more time to be near-misses, (rather) than accidents.''
2 photos, map
(1 -- color) A warning is posted as a Metrolink train crosses Van Nuys Boulevard along San Fernando Road in Pacoima.
(2 -- color) Vehicles wait for a Metrolink train to pass at Roxford Street in Sylmar.
David Sprague/Staff Photographer
DEADLY METROLINK LINES
Warren Huskey/Staff Artist