Fifth & Rice - Your Metrolink Survival Guide

At the Burbank, California Metrolink station, a Hyundai Rotem cab-control car is properly mated with a matching Hyundai Rotem passenger coach, as all Metrolink trains should be.

This is 5thandrice.com.


Rice Ave. south approach to Fifth St. and the Coast Line railroad tracks in Oxnard shows insufficient warning signs and derelict street markings at the approach to the deadliest grade crossing in Ventura County, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Safety Hazards Prevail at the Fifth and Rice Railroad Grade Crossing in Oxnard, California
 

I have lived in Ventura County, California for almost half my life. I love the place, but I know its history as a formerly remote, rural county whose patron families did not like change. In the 1950s and 1960s, their mantra was, “If we don’t build roads, no one will come”. With or without adequate roads, the people came. In 1970, the county population was 400,000. In 2013, it had more than doubled, to 840,000.

The heavy steel "plows" on Union Pacific Railroad locomotives are designed to clear the tracks of any stalled vehicle in their way - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)In 2004, Ventura County voters spurned a half-cent sales tax that would have been devoted to transportation projects. In 2008, county officials again ran that idea up the flagpole, only to see it shot down from every direction. Continued attempts to raise sales taxes in Ventura County was like a parody of the famous line in the movie, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. “Roads? We don’t need no stinkin roads!”

In July 2015, the Ventura County Transportation commission announced the results of their most recent poll regarding a new half cent sales tax in Ventura County, which would fund transportation improvements. Although sixty percent of respondents favored the idea, a ballot measure would require a two-thirds positive vote to succeed. If the measure appears on the 2016 ballot, we can expect a groundswell of opposition. Their likely rallying cry will be, “Taxes? We don’t need no stinkin taxes”.

The small memorial to Metrolink engineer Glenn Steele, who lost his life in the February 2015 train collision at Fifth and Rice in Oxnard, California - Click for detailed image of the memorial (http://jamesmcgillis.com)In July 2015, train crash survivor Marc Gerstel and I visited the February 2015 Metrolink Oxnard collision site. First, we paid our respects at the memorial for engineer Glenn Steele, who died from injuries sustained in the collision. Then, Gerstel and I agreed that we would use my characters, Plush Kokopelli and Coney the Traffic Cone to make our visit more meaningful. Almost immediately, Plush Kokopelli jumped up on the Rice Ave. “crossbuck”, which is the generic term for the big overhead railroad warning sign. Aiming his flute down toward ground level, Plush Kokopelli pointed out a serious safety deficiency. If left unattended, the deficiency could have catastrophic consequences for motorists and train passengers at the crossing.

Coney the Traffic Cone sits next to the damaged base of the crossbuck sign at Fifth and Rice railroad grade crossing in Oxnard, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)On the cast metal base of the crossbuck, one of four support flanges was split wide open, thus weakening the entire structure. Since the split flange faced Rice Ave., I assumed that a speeding vehicle had hit the metal base quite hard. If another vehicle were to strike the base at that vulnerable spot, the crossbuck tower-sign could collapse onto the roadway and even the railroad tracks.

Meanwhile, Coney had waited patiently while we took pictures of the damaged base of the crossbuck. By then, he could hardly contain himself. While standing by the crossbuck, Coney had made friends with a large Caltrans traffic cone, which was lying on its side, unable to right itself. After Coney got my attention, I tipped the Caltrans Coney up, so that it could stand on its own base. Since I have channeled Kokopelli and Coney for years, I could see that The "plow" fitted to this Hyundai Rotem Cab-Control Car is identical to the one attached to Metrolink Train No. 102, which was ripped away in its collision with a Ford F-450 work truck and trailer, leading to the death of Metrolink engineer Glenn Steele - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)my Coney wanted to help Caltrans Coney once again be a productive member of the safety cone community.

Most news reports about the February 2015 Metrolink collision are incomplete. The driver of the F-450 work truck, Mr. Jose Sanchez-Ramirez was not a “recent transplant from Tucson, Arizona”. In fact, he was making his first-ever trip from Tucson to the Oxnard Plain. There, he was to deliver welding equipment to one of the local farms. The previous day, after driving from Tucson to San Diego, his original rig broke down. After waiting for delivery of a replacement truck, he headed north toward Ventura County. Somewhere along the way, he was in a minor traffic accident, which only delayed him further.

In July 2015, five months after a deadly Metrolink train collision at the grade crossing, author Jim McGillis invited Plush Kokopelli and Coney the Traffic Cone to help find simple, low-cost solutions to the safety issues still present at Fifth and Rice in Oxnard, California  - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)After driving all day and all night without rest, Jose Sanchez-Ramirez arrived before dawn on Rice Ave., heading south toward Fifth St. Having no GPS guidance, Sanchez-Ramirez relied on a printout of an internet map to guide him. There, exhausted and in the dark, he mistook the railroad tracks for Fifth St. and turned too soon. Eighty feet west, he stopped on the tracks, thus setting up the pre-dawn collision with Metrolink Train No. 102.

In July 2015, Marc Gerstel and I stood where Sanchez-Ramirez made his fateful turn. Beyond the crossbuck, but before the railroad tracks, I placed Caltrans Coney in his rightful place. If Caltrans Coney had been there, silently standing guard between the crossbuck and the tracks on that fateful morning, there would have been no collision. The vigilant Caltrans Coney would have warned Jose Sanchez-Ramirez against his errant turn. If that turn had not happened, Glenn Steele would be alive today and Marc Gerstel would still be an adjunct professor of dental technology at LA City College.

Battered, but not beaten, Caltrans Coney stands guard at the Fifth and Rice railroad grade crossing, hoping to prevent motorists from turning on to the railroad tracks at that derelict and confusing intersection - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)I found my first Coney the Traffic Cone almost a decade ago. Since then, I have collected many of the mistreated and abandoned traffic cones that I have found along the highway. Some were in good shape while others were nearly shredded. The good thing about a traffic cone is that if run over by a vehicle, more often than not, it will pop back into shape and keep on coning. If you look along the roadsides of America, eventually you will spot a Coney, standing or lying there with nothing productive to do.

If you find an abandoned Coney along the road, please pick it up. If you are in Ventura County, please carry it to the Fifth and Rice grade crossing. Once there, place it along the side of the road, between the crossbuck and the tracks. Then, drive away smiling, because you may have prevented the next Metrolink collision at Rice Ave. and Fifth St. in Oxnard, California. As Marc Plush Kokopelli sits with Caltrans Coney, hoping that he can stay at the Fifth and Rice railroad grade crossing and save others from the fate of Metrolink Train No. 102 in February 2015 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Gerstel, Coney, Kokopelli and I drove away from the scene; the battered and beaten Caltrans Coney proudly stood guard at the deadliest railroad crossing in Ventura County.

After visiting the collision site, Marc Gerstel gave me the latest facts regarding that intersection. “According to David Golonski, the chairperson of the LOSSAN Rail Corridor Agency, this is the second busiest rail corridor in the nation. For the past twenty years, the Rice Ave. and 5th Street crossing has earned the label as the ‘deadliest crossing in Ventura County’. With a total of fourteen accidents and four deaths, it is in the ‘top-23 list’ of most dangerous crossings in California. It ranks as the third most deadly in Southern California. The proposed solution by Mr. Leahy, which is to install ‘pavement "Pavement sensors" at the Fifth and Rice grade crossing would not have saved Metrolink engineer Glenn Steel (pictured here) from the February 2015 train collision that took his life - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)sensors that would be faster and cheaper’ than a grade separation is like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound.”

According to the office of Congresswoman Julia Brownley (D - Agoura Hills), from 2006 - 2014, the Federal Highway Administration California Division has received over $42 million in federal money intended specifically for remediation of dangerous rail crossings. According to Malcolm Dougherty, Director of Caltrans, the grade crossing at Rice and Fifth is not high enough on the statewide priority list to receive any of that funding. Despite Dougherty's statement that, "We are committed to expeditiously obligating and utilizing all federal funds for this (safety) effort", to date none of the $42 million has been obligated or spent.

As seen here in an artist's rendering, the Glenn Steel Memorial Overpass has yet to gain support from the City of Oxnard, Ventura County, Caltrans, Metrolink, Amtrak, Union Pacific or the LOSSAN rail agency - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)If the previously allocated, yet un-utilized federal funding were to be allocated for improvements at the Fifth and Rice grade crossing, there would be sufficient funds to build and dedicate the proposed "Glenn Steele Memorial Overpass" at the site of his fatal injuries. If not, I expect the sixth extinction to be complete and the next ice age to commence before we see any mitigation of the dangers still evident at Fifth and Rice, in Oxnard, California.

This is Part 2 of a two-part article. To read Part 1, please click HERE.

 

Why is Fifth and Rice, Oxnard so Dangerous?

A physical mismatch between the Hyundai Rotem cab-control car (left) and the obsolete bi-level Bombardier coach (right) led to the decoupling of Train No. 102 at Rice Ave. in a Metrolink collision in Oxnard California in February 2015.


In Oxnard, California, at the Fifth St. and Rice Ave. railroad grade crossing, safety features have not changed since the steam era of transportation - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Ventura County - Stuck in the Steam Era of Transportation Infrastructure and Railroad Safety
 

In February 2015, the grade crossing at Rice Ave. and Fifth St. (Fifth and Rice) in Oxnard, California was the scene of yet another deadly Metrolink train collision. While reading news reports of the collision, I found myself appalled by the continued carnage at the busiest commercial intersection in Ventura County.

Beginning in April 2015, I set out to investigate the circumstances of the collision between Metrolink Train No. 102 and a Ford F-450 work truck. Since then, I have published my own preliminary findings concerning the deficiencies at the intersection and within the Metrolink trains that traverse the Oxnard Plain.

San Buena Ventura Mission, founded in 1782 by Father Junipero Serra represents the conservative, agrarian past of Ventura County, California - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)As of this writing, it has been five months since the Oxnard Metrolink collision. In the interim, politicians and transportation agency chiefs from throughout Southern California have agreed that the intersection represents an ongoing danger to motorists and train passengers alike. Most officials pointed to the 2004 election loss of a Ventura County half-cent transportation sales tax as the root of the problem.

Without matching funds from a county sales tax, neither state nor federal money will soon be forthcoming to fix safety issues at that serial-collision site. Experts and policymakers agree that only a complete grade separation, utilizing a Rice Ave. overpass will eliminate future collisions at the site. With a $35 - $40 million price tag for the grade separation, no one in authority expects any substantial safety improvements at the collision site for at least the next decade.

In early 2015, Metrolink named transportation veteran Art Leahy as its new chief executive. On June 30, 2015, L.A. Times reporter Dan Weikel interviewed Leahy regarding the important issues facing both Leahy and Metrolink. One of those issues was the grade crossing at Fifth and Rice. Weikel asked, “Is anything being done about Rice Avenue near Oxnard, where a Metrolink train collided with a pickup truck and trailer that strayed into the crossing?”

A vintage Ford F-450 work truck similar to the one Mr. Jose Sanchez-Ramirez abandoned on the railroad tracks in Oxnard, causing a deadly collision with Metrolink Train No. 102 in February 2015 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Apparently, neither Weikel nor Leahy understood that a Ford F-450 is not a lightweight pickup truck or that its attached trailer was transporting heavy welding equipment. In fact, an F-450 weighs over seven tons and can tow a trailer weighing over fifteen tons. If the F-450 rig was fully loaded, it could have weighed more than 44,000 pounds. Nor did the truck “stray into the crossing”. Instead, its driver, Jose Sanchez-Ramirez, from Tucson Arizona, had prematurely made a hard right turn onto the tracks. Eighty feet west of the intersection, his truck and trailer had halted on the tracks in a “high-centered” position.

In answering the reporter’s question, Leahy began by reiterating the usual Ventura County “tax and funding” issues. Then, Leahy displayed his ignorance of what had happened in the predawn hours on that fateful February morning. By his answer, it was obvious that Leahy had bought into the assumption that the F-450 rig was a pickup truck that had “strayed into the crossing”. With that in mind, Leahy made his pitch for modest, yet superfluous safety improvements at the deadly crossing.

Approaching Fifth St. on Rice Ave. South, it is not clear where to turn right, which led to to the collision of an F-450 work truck and Metrolink Train No. 102 in February 2015 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Leahy stated, “I would like to look into putting sensors in the pavement. It’s cheaper and faster to do than a grade separation”. Had Leahy read the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) preliminary accident report, he would have known that sensors in the pavement would not have detected a truck and trailer stalled eighty feet from the grade crossing. Nothing that Leahy suggested would have helped prevent the February 2015 collision of Train No. 102.

If he wants to know what happened at Fifth and Rice, Leahy should conduct his own site survey. In fact, it might be instructive for Leahy to ride the Metrolink Ventura County line to Ventura one afternoon and then take Train No. 102 back to Los Angeles the next morning.  As he approaches Fifth and Rice, I hope he is not seated at a killer worktable in an obsolete bi-level Bombardier coach. If so, in the event of a collision, he would have a high risk of debilitating injuries or even death. Doubting that such a busy person as Leahy would visit a former crash site so far from his home base in Los Angeles, I decided to survey the scene again, nearly six months after the deadly collision.

A physical mismatch between the Hyundai Rotem cab-control car (left) and the obsolete bi-level Bombardier coach (right) led to the decoupling of Train No. 102 at Rice Ave. in a Metrolink collision in Oxnard California in February 2015 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Soon after I published two articles about Metrolink and rail safety in Ventura County, I met Mr. Marc Gerstel. On that dark February morning, Gerstel told me, he was a passenger on Train No. 102. According to news reports that day, "the train was traveling at 79 mph headed out of the Oxnard Transit Center". While sitting in the second coach, Gerstel heard the brakes engage in full emergency mode. As his laptop computer flew across the worktable at which he sat, he felt the collision, saw a fireball outside the window and then began to “tumble like a tennis shoe in a dryer”. People and objects were flying everywhere inside the obsolete bi-level Bombardier coach in which he rode. After he struck one or more of what Metrolink has admitted for over a decade to be “killer worktables”, Gerstel sustained both a broken neck and shattered lower vertebrae.

At the Burbank, California Metrolink station, a Hyundai Rotem cab-control car is properly mated with a matching Hyundai Rotem passenger coach, as all Metrolink trains should be - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)In early July, when I asked Marc Gerstel if he would like to visit the scene of his recent, near-death experience, he said that he was ready. Regular readers of this blog know that I have two characters that accompany me on some of my fieldwork. They are Plush Kokopelli and Coney the Traffic Cone. As Coney likes to say, “Coney is my name and safety is my game”. Plush Kokopelli says nothing, as he is mute. Once Gerstel saw my dynamic duo, he was glad to have them along. Perhaps their whimsical presence softened the hard realities that he had so recently experienced during the train collision.

After parking in a safe location, Gerstel and I agreed that we would complete our observations from the relative safety of the public sidewalk that runs alongside Rice Ave. From there, we could observe and photograph much of what truck driver Jose Sanchez-Ramirez might have seen, or not seen in the early morning darkness of February 24, 2015.

A gaping hole in the concrete and wrought iron fence where the Metrolink cab-control car operated by engineer Glenn Steele whipped 180-degrees and landed on its side, thus causing his fatal injuries - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Upon arriving at the scene, my first impression was that nothing had changed since my visit three months earlier. To the east, there was a gaping hole where engineer Glenn Steele watched as his cab-control car No. 645 whipped violently around and demolished a cinder block and wrought iron wall. Railroad ties, splintered by the steel wheels of the derailed Train No. 102 still supported the railroad tracks to either side of the crossing. At the crossing, a concrete and steel platform lay between the rails. While standing on its edge, where the platform meets the sidewalk, I could feel a rumble each time a vehicle passed by. Had the impact of steel train wheels loosened that platform from its moorings?

For Marc Gerstel, going back so soon to the scene of the collision was an emotional experience. On a grassy knoll, in the shade of a tree, he found a small memorial to the engineer, Glenn Steele. Atop the memorial was a replica of a U.S. postage stamp, “Honoring Railroad Engineers of America”. In Memoriam. Glenn Steele – Metrolink’s No. 1 Locomotive Engineer, who passed away in the line of duty, March 2015. “The people knew by the whistle’s moan That the man at the throttle was Casey Jones.” – Ballad of Casey Jones. After a moment of silence, Marc Gerstel said to me, “He could have run to safety, A three cent U.S. Postage stamp from 1953, honoring the legendary railroad engineer Casey Jones and all other fallen railroad engineers of America - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)but he stayed in the cab, riding the brakes. I believe he saved my life”. As of this writing, interested readers may make a contribution to the family of Glenn Steele at a memorial website in his honor.

Sadly, rail crossing infrastructure deficiencies and an unsafe train configuration took the life of Metrolink engineer Glenn Steele. Since the Metrolink Oxnard collision, no one in any corporation, legislative body or government agency has moved to mitigate the unsafe conditions still present at the Fifth and Rice grade crossing. In fact, since workers removed the wreckage from the tracks, nothing except the addition of a memorial to engineer Glenn Steele has changed at the collision site. To the untutored eye, Fifth and Rice looks like a typical railroad grade crossing in Ventura County. To the cognoscenti, it is a patchwork of neglect, quick fixes and glaring danger. Although the use of bailing wire is not evident at the collision site, there is plenty of exposed electrical tape keeping the warning signals alive.

The railroad grade crossing at Fifth St. and Rice Ave. is the third most deadly in Southern California and likely to remain so for at least the next decade - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Each day, officials at the City of Oxnard, Ventura County, Union Pacific Railroad, Amtrak, Metrolink and regional rail authority LOSSAN hold their collective breath, hoping that history will not repeat itself at Fifth and Rice. In their collective inaction, they play a game of Russian roulette with the thousands of vehicle occupants and train passengers that cross there each day. Bureaucratic thinking and institutional inertia rule the day. Like a yachtsman who yells, “Tonnage” as he careens closer to a smaller boat, the big iron of the railroad rules the grade crossing at Fifth and Rice. After dreaming about their own collision with a Ford F-450 at that site, do the politicians, bureaucrats and agency executives awaken to the sound of a train whistle, howling in the night? If not, perhaps they should.

This is Part 1 of a two-part article. To read Part 2, please click HERE.