How safe are the tracks you walk on?

Patrick Trautfield

On the evening of Saturday, Nov. 11, psychology junior Ryan West was walking to a friend’s house near the student apartments on the Foothill Boulevard side of the railroad tracks when he was struck by an oncoming train at the railroad crossing near the California Boulevard intersection.

Though he has no recollection of exactly how the accident occurred, West was struck by an oncoming Union Pacific train at around 1 a.m. and suffered severe damage to his right leg.

Unconscious and bleeding heavily, West was taken to Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center. West’s wounds were not life-threatening, but his right leg had sustained irreparable damage and was amputated below the knee.




Commenting on the current safety devices at the intersection, West said that in the future “it would help if they fenced off the railroad tracks passing California Boulevard” or “built a pedestrian bridge” at the intersection of California and Foothill boulevards.

In the wake of the recent accident, many Cal Poly students, San Luis Obispo residents and city officials have been discussing whether the railroad track safety precautions (particularly at the intersection of California and Foothill boulevards) could or should be improved to ensure that similar accidents can be prevented.

Christine Mulholland, a San Luis Obispo City Council member, said that trains already take several precautions when driving into the city, such as slowing down considerably before entering city limits and alerting pedestrians and vehicles more than 20 seconds in advance before crossing an intersection. But safety could still be improved.

Mulholland said that the City Council has attempted for years to improve safety along the California Boulevard side of the railroad tracks.

However, the City Council has not been able to resolve responsibility issues with Union Pacific, which owns the tracks.

“For years, we have tried to negotiate with Union Pacific about improving safety out there but it has been a very difficult process because the tracks are private property and not city property,” Mulholland said.

Though the City Council and Union Pacific agree that safety could be improved along California Boulevard, by erecting a large fence for instance, the issue of who would pay for such implementations has stalled the negotiations, Mulholland said.

“The problem is that Union Pacific wants the city to pay for the fencing, but that is a very expensive undertaking, and since it is private property it would become even more expensive because we would have to attain private property building permits,” Mulholland said. “We would be more than happy to provide the labor to build the fences, but the city budget could not support the entire project. We need the railroad company to take some responsibility.”

The matter of financial responsibility has certainly been a polarizing issue for Union Pacific and the City Council which, even before the recent accident, had plans to make safety improvements along California Boulevard to the “Railroad Safety Trail,” a bike path that runs along the railroads through San Luis Obispo.

“The city has plans to put in some fencing for the project along the palm tree side of California Boulevard but Union Pacific also wants the city to pay for fencing along the block wall side facing the student apartments as well,” said Peggy Mandeville, the principal transportation associate for San Luis Obispo.

Yet regardless of the stalemate the city and the railroad company have in deciding who should finance the safety improvements, it is clear that both parties are seriously pursuing that objective.

“Regardless of the money issue, the bottom line is that both parties want to improve safety and discourage people from illegally crossing the tracks,” Mandeville said.

The Cal Poly University Police Department, also has an active role in educating students about railroad safety, UPD Chief Bill Watton said.

“On campus, we often have the railroad company bring a safety simulator, and we pass out leaflets and handouts to students to ensure that they are aware of the safety precautions and the dangers of crossing the tracks illegally,” Watton said.

Because the railroad is privately owned, the tracks can only be passed at designated intersections, Watton said. It is considered trespassing to cross the tracks elsewhere.

Risk of accidents also increases when students and other pedestrians walk along or cross the tracks in between designated crosswalks because of the absence of alert mechanisms that are activated when a train is passing, Watton said.

“Our primary concern is to ensure that students are well-educated of the dangers of crossing the tracks illegally. Prevention is the key,” Watton said.

Watton said that the UPD were the first to respond to the accident that occurred on Nov. 11 because a UPD patrolman was the closest officer to the scene of the accident. Normally, UPD does not play an active role in patrolling the railroads to ensure that students are crossing legally because that is primarily the responsibility of Union Pacific, he said.

“Even the portions of the tracks that run through Cal Poly are not university property so we hold no jurisdiction over the tracks. That’s up to the railroad company’s own private security patrols,” Watton said. The railroad company has its own security force that routinely patrols the tracks on ATVs to ensure that students and other pedestrians are not crossing the tracks illegally.

Union Pacific was not available for comment.

Watton said that students should certainly observe the law and cross the tracks only at designated crosswalks. He does not, however, think that any safety improvements, particularly a fence near California Boulevard, would be effective.

“They could try to put up a barrier, but I don’t think that will work because students will easily find a way to get through these barriers,” Watton said.

Many other officials share the same opinion, including Dan Blanke, the captain of the Patrol Bureau in San Luis Obispo, who said a safety barrier would be highly ineffective.

“If we erect a fence on California Boulevard it won’t stop students or anybody else from illegally crossing because they would eventually cut holes or go under the fence,” Blanke said. “And since it isn’t our jurisdiction either, it would be hard for us to regulate, and keep people from cutting holes in the fence.”

Many students who live near or use California and Foothill boulevards’ crosswalk also said that fences would not be very effective in deterring students from crossing the tracks illegally.

“I think the city would be wasting their money because people would either hop the fence or get around it somehow,” said agribusiness senior Shawn Fortman, who lives at Cedar Creek, an apartment building that borders the railroad tracks near Foothill Boulevard. “Plus, I don’t think that the tracks are that dangerous anyway because the trains cruise by pretty slow, and you can hear them coming from far away.”

Blanke said that West’s incident was a “freak accident,” and safety implementations already in place are satisfactory enough and that the infrequency of accidents that happen on the railroad didn’t warrant any further improvements.

Before West was struck by the train, there hadn’t been an accident since 2001, when Cal Poly student Jason Cy was fatally hit while trying to cross the tracks on his bicycle. Before the 2001 incident, there hadn’t been any fatal accidents in more than 20 years, Blanke said.

Many residents of San Luis Obispo also felt that any safety improvements in the wake of the recent accident weren’t necessary because the existing precautions are sufficient enough.

“It’s adequate for sober people,” said Chris Correa, 28, of San Luis Obispo. “You have to judge the safety to how dangerous is it for attentive pedestrians, and I think the current railroad provisions are suitable.”