The chief of enforcement at the North County Transit District has a message for folks who cross or walk along local train tracks: Don’t do it.
The transit district is cracking down and more actively ticketing trespassers along the Sprinter light rail line and the coastal rail corridor, much to the chagrin of people who zip across the tracks to get to the beach.
Jaime Becerra, the district’s enforcement chief, said last week that the “glaring problem” of people on the tracks has been on rise. Engineers are forced to take action, from horn blasts to emergency stops, at least three times a day.
As the number of close calls ticked up, the district has taken up what Becerra called “a low-tolerance approach.”
The enhanced enforcement started this month. In the first 15 days, transit officers and sheriff’s deputies issued 84 citations and 158 warnings — a big jump from the 33 tickets issued from January through July. In 2015, only 115 tickets were issued.
Del Mar resident Frank Stonebanks, who was cited in early August, said he wants to fight back. He said he has reached out to groups that work for beach access, and also created a Facebook page to generate grassroots support.
“It boils down to our rights and our ability to access the beach,” Stonebanks said. “People have been crossing these tracks for years.”
He wants the crossings to be permissible, with the onus of liability on the trespasser, and says it has been done elsewhere. “Obviously, I am not crossing anymore, but I always see people (crossing),” Stonebanks said. “Surfers will cross those tracks. They (authorities) might as well figure out a way to make it safe.”
Transit officials say there is no such thing as a safe illegal crossing.
There have been 19 fatalities and 15 injuries in the last 24 months along the coastal tracks and Sprinter line. Officials said it is difficult to know how many were suicides.
One accidental death came in January 2014, when Louis Terrell, a 75-year-old former mayor of Del Mar, was killed on the tracks near 11th Street as he tried to grab his dog, which had been spooked by the train horn.
It happened less than a week after Becerra started working with the district. “That has kind of set the tone for my career here,” he said.
Until this month trespassing on the tracks was a misdemeanor, but the transit district recently found a government code allowing tickets to be written as infractions — more akin to a traffic ticket. “We are not here to try to ruin people,” said Sheriff’s Sgt. Jason King, who runs the unit of deputies assigned to work with transit district. “We are here to just try to change your attitude about being on the tracks.”
King said deputies will still issue the misdemeanor tickets when the circumstances call for it. Even infraction tickets are pricey. The base fine for the offense is $75, but tack on court and penalty assessments, and the cost jumps to nearly $400 for a first-time offender, according to the San Diego Superior Court. Transit officials said none of those fines are funneled back to the district.
The latest effort consists of more patrols and special operations. Becerra — who prefers to call it “an increased presence, not a crackdown” — said the district is “really looking at this across the board.” That ranges from transient camps too close to the rail line, to people crossing the tracks or walking near them.
In Del Mar, the tracks run parallel to a hiking trail and people frequently move across the corridor, particularly south of 15th Street where there’s a long stretch without a legal crossing. Surfers and others heading to the beach park on cul de sacs east of the tracks, then cross over on the way to the ocean.
“What are you supposed to do?” San Diego resident Kris Ochi said after surfing off 11th Street on Friday. “If you want to get to the beach, you’ve got to cross the tracks.”
There are no-trespassing signs, he acknowledged, but he also pointed to the well-worn path and the trash can at the head of it. “It’s the established route,” he said.
Stonebanks said after he was ticketed he warned friends and neighbors about the crackdown. “People are really upset about the issue,” he said.
Becerra said that perhaps three times a day, the presence of trespassers forces quick action — whether blaring the horn or hitting the emergency brakes— by train operators on the local tracks.
Crews must inspect rail lines after an emergency stop. The downtime often runs from 15 to 60 minutes and can affect the scheduling. Aside from Coaster trains, the coastal tracks also carry trains from Amtrak, Metrolink, and BNSF Railway. The lines are part of the second busiest intercity passenger rail corridor in the country, officials said. The trespassing problems also happen on Sprinter as well, but far less so, Becerra said.
King, a 20-year sheriff’s deputy who heads the railway enforcement unit for the Sheriff’s Department, said that a few months into the job, he realized how dangerous the rail corridor can be. He said he was 20 feet from the tracks, waiting to spot a northbound train he knew was carrying a deputy and a wanted felon, when the southbound train suddenly blew past from behind.
“It totally shocked me,” he said. “A light bulb went off. It changed my whole way of thinking.”
One catalyst to start targeting trespassers came after a man and woman laid on the tracks in Encinitas, reportedly in a suicide attempt in July. They were struck but survived, although the woman lost her arm.
“The situation was so dramatic and traumatic, we knew we had do something,” Becerra said.
– Teri Figueroa is a writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune.