Watching the tracks
Just north of Leucadia Boulevard and Coast Highway 101, a woman holding a Styrofoam cup of coffee moseyed east across the railroad tracks.
Sheriff’s deputy Dawn Morabe watched from inside her parked truck 75 yards away.
“This woman right here — she’s trespassing on the rail line,” Morabe said, pointing forward. “I could write her a citation, but that happens all day long.”
Instead, the situation called for issuing a warning — primarily to let the person know it’s easy to underestimate the speed of trains.
“Trains could be going anywhere from 50 to 90 miles per hour in the corridor,” Morabe said. “It’s an optical illusion — since they’re big objects, you think they’re going slower than they actually are.”
Morabe is assigned to the Encinitas-based Sheriff’s Transit Services Unit, which handles everything from trespassers to vandals to railway fatalities.
Last year, the unit had two deputies. But thanks to a new contract with NCTD (North County Transit District), it now boasts five deputies and a sergeant.
And the expanded unit has additional duties: patrolling buses and transit centers.
But Morabe noted the tracks are still the focus. With more eyes on the rails, there’s been a step up in education, as well as enforcement.
From the start of this year to May 1, the unit issued 14 citations, including five in Encinitas, for illegally crossing the tracks. Last year, the deputies didn’t hand out any trespassing tickets, which carry a maximum $1,000 fine and require a court appearance.
“I think we’ll continue to see it ramp up as a function of more deputies,” Morabe said.
Morabe, who has been with the unit for nearly five years, has seen it all: intoxicated people stumbling across the railway; photo ops on the tracks as trains approach; joggers wearing headphones and running next to the railway.
Such egregious violations are more likely to draw a citation, she emphasized.
“If I see someone crossing, I may or may not give them a cite,” she said. “Now, if I see someone sitting on the tracks trying to take pictures, to me that’s more alarming. Because if a train is going 90 miles per hour, it’s going to cut it close.”
She preaches caution for a reason. Morabe investigates train deaths on a regular basis.
She was called to the scene when former Del Mar Mayor Lou Terrell died earlier this year trying to save his dog from an oncoming train around 11th Street in Del Mar.
While inspecting the surroundings, Morabes spotted surfers crossing the tracks illegally — undeterred by what had just happened.
There were two accidental pedestrian fatalities in 2013 on the two corridors the unit patrols, according to NCTD data. 2012 saw seven.
Those corridors include the coastal line that stretches from downtown San Diego to Orange County and the Sprinter railway from Escondido to Oceanside.
Suicides are also a problem, with seven of them last year on the tracks.
The unit relies on train engineers, who call in potentially dangerous or suicidal behavior. And occasionally, residents provide timely tips.
“We got a call from a resident about two months ago about a man in Del Mar hanging around the tracks,” Morabe said. “It turned out he was suicidal. Fortunately, we rushed out and were able to get him to the hospital. After he was released, he was back out there. Same resident called, and we took him in again.”
Driving by Carpentier Parkway in Cardiff, she noted that transients once threw shopping carts and debris onto the tracks in protest over being asked to leave there.
While some lob objects in front of local trains, others fling things directly at them.
She recalled riding in a train and someone throwing a “huge rock at it.”
“The rock hit the window right next to my head,” she added.
Recently, Morabe has noticed an uptick in another problem: rows of cars parked next to the tracks, property owned by NCTD. It frequently happens in Leucadia and Cardiff, where spaces can be scarce in adjacent neighborhoods, she added.
Technically, this practice is illegal. Once again, Morabe opts for warnings, though she’s less inclined to do so if a car is within a few feet of the railway.
While unlikely, a car on the tracks could derail a train. Vehicles also loosen the dirt around the railway. Trains speeding by then kick up dust, annoying nearby homeowners.
“Letter of the law, we could be issuing citations,” Morabe said. “But the bigger issue is, how do we correct the problem?”
A potential solution: The city of Encinitas and NCTD are drafting a cooperative agreement addressing parking by the tracks.
Although in the early stages, that document might make it easier for the city to lease the corridor’s outer edges from NCTD for parking, for instance. It could also involve the city setting up parking lots in affected areas like Leucadia.
The city is also seeking to construct undercrossings to cut down on railroad trespassing.
The Santa Fe Drive undercrossing opened in early 2013. Plans call for three more, two in Leucadia and one in Cardiff.
“Our interest is better access, better connectivity,” said Ed Deane, senior civil engineer with the city. “And it’s much safer if you have legal crossings.”
To pay for most of the El Portal Street undercrossing and another on Montgomery Avenue, the city is applying for state grants, and expects to hear back in August, according to Deane. A possible funding source has yet to be identified for a third on Grandview Street.
Each undercrossing costs about $5 million.
A less expensive option on the city’s radar is constructing at-grade crossings with gates, but obtaining approval from the California Public Utilities Commission is difficult.
In the meantime, with only seven legal places to cross in Encinitas, it’s common to see people walking across the tracks to get to the beach.
Jaime Becerra is NCTD’s chief of transit enforcement.
He said the agency is increasing communications about the dangers of trespassing, with the help of the Transit Enforcement Unit.
Also, NCTD recently installed additional “no trespassing” signs throughout the corridors. And it partnered with Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit dedicated to railroad safety, to distribute educational fliers.
Down the line, Becerra said NCTD’s approach could shift toward enforcement.
“Awareness and education is always the best way to start out to make a change,” Becerra said. “What we’re trying to do is not make an immediate shock to people.”
Another major reason NCTD increased the Transit Services Unit contract is so law enforcement personnel could respond to bus and transit center issues, too.
“There are issues beyond the rail lines, like vandalism,” he said, calling the new approach a change in philosophy.
Back with Morabe in her truck, she motioned toward the Cardiff railroad crossing, noting occasionally pedestrians will walk across even when the gate arm is down.
“They say, ‘Don’t worry — I’m careful,’” Morabe said. “And I respond, ‘Well, the train can really sneak up on you, and I’m just looking out for you.’”