Citations on rise for pedestrians crossing tracks illegally in Encinitas
No train was in sight. So a middle-aged couple holding hands near East Jason Street in Leucadia crossed the tracks the morning of May 1.
A stone’s throw to the north, a surfer without shoes carefully stepped across the railway. Ten minutes later, a jogger followed suit.
With few legal crossings in Encinitas, such occurrences are common. But they’re more likely to draw a citation these days.
So far this year, the Sheriff’s Department has issued 29 citations in Encinitas for trespassing on the railroad, a penalty that carries a maximum $1,000 fine and requires a court appearance. In 2014 there were six tickets locally, with none in 2013.
Some residents argue the citations are unnecessary — and unfair, given the lack of legal crossings — while law enforcement officials say tickets are sometimes in order.
“Our biggest concern is making sure people are safe,” said Sheriff’s Sgt. Jason King, who oversees the Encinitas-based Rail Enforcement Unit.
King said the increase in tickets is primarily a function of the unit expanding, resulting in more patrols spotting railway trespassers.
Early last year, North County Transit District approved a new contract that upped the unit from two deputies to five deputies and a sergeant.
The unit handles everything from trespassers to vandals to railway fatalities throughout the region. It patrols buses and transit centers, too.
A March 20 enforcement operation netted 14 citations in Leucadia, while 10 out-of-state visitors were given warnings, according to records.
“The deputies must have felt that giving them a warning was more appropriate in that instance,” King said. He said that there’s been a push over the past year to inform residents about the dangers of illegally crossing the tracks. Posted “no trespassing” signs also serve as a warning, he added.
King said he doesn’t instruct deputies on when to issue citations, nor are there written Sheriff’s Department criteria.
“It’s basically a deputy’s discretion on whether they feel a citation is appropriate or not,” King said.
A deputy in the unit told the Encinitas Advocate last June that the letter of the law states it’s illegal to trespass on the railway, but deputies typically opt for education and warnings. The deputy said citations are more likely for egregious violations, such as intoxicated people stumbling along the railway.
Resident Micah Bedrosian said he wasn’t doing anything irresponsible or dangerous when he received a ticket in January for crossing the tracks a few hundred yards north of Leucadia Boulevard.
Bedrosian said the deputy at the time told him the violation would result in a $100 to $200 ticket. He added it turned out to be $490 — and worse, a misdemeanor.
A registered nurse, he worried the violation could hurt his future career prospects, though he was able to get the ticket dismissed after going to traffic court and then criminal court.
Bedrosian added that he lives on Vulcan Avenue and he wasn’t notified that Sheriff’s deputies would be transitioning to enforcement.
“I never received a written notice or warning,” he said. “There were no postings they would be ticketing.”
J.P. St. Pierre, who owns Surfy Surfy in Leucadia, said in an email it’s frustrating that friends and neighbors who live east of the train tracks are getting tickets for crossing safely.
“They are simply trying to access the beach and coast highway businesses,” St. Pierre wrote. “Parking is difficult along the coast and it’s ridiculous to get in your car when you can take a short walk.”
He also stated that the Sheriff’s Department should practice good judgment and keep an eye out for individuals who are behaving oddly.
“It’s obvious the group crossing in wetsuits carrying surfboards are not suicidal,” he said. “The nice couple holding hands crossing the tracks are simply going to get coffee.”
He added that the city and North County Transit District “are decades behind in the necessary infrastructure pedestrians need in Leucadia.”
The city in 2013 finished an undercrossing on Santa Fe Drive to cut down on illegal railroad crossings. Yet it has been unable to secure funding for two planned undercrossings in Leucadia and another in Cardiff.
Notably, the $5.4 million El Portal Street undercrossing failed to make the cut among California Active Transportation grant applications last year.
Ed Deane, senior civil engineer with the city, said staff members will apply again in June, adding the city has a better chance this year. That’s because of the recently completed “Let’s Move, Encinitas” plan, which documents needed infrastructure for well-traveled routes throughout the city.
Deane also said the city will soon kick off a rail corridor vision plan that will review the entire corridor to identify preferred infrastructure improvements.
Most of the Encinitas tickets this year were issued in Leucadia, from Leucadia Boulevard to Andrew Avenue to the north, according to records.
Last winter, North County Transit District designated the area around Leucadia Boulevard as one of three focus spots, citing a high number of illegal crossings and train incidents there.
Since 2011, five of the nine train fatalities in Encinitas have occurred near Leucadia Boulevard, according to district records.
The most recent death in the focus area was a suicide. Exactly how many of the fatalities were accidents versus suicides couldn’t be obtained by press time.
Katie Whichard, public information officer with North County Transit District, said the agency’s code enforcement officers report trespassing instances to the Sheriff’s Department.
“Our code enforcement officers work very closely with them to be able to identify hot spots or problem areas,” Whichard said. Sheriff’s deputies have discretion over whether to issue a warning or citation, she noted.
Whichard said that illegal crossings are dangerous not only for pedestrians, but also trains. If a crosser is close, the train has to go into emergency braking mode, so there’s “a small potential for derailment,” she said.
“No illegal crossing could be considered a safe crossing,” Whichard said. “There’s always a risk that someone’s not going to hear or see a train.”