DEL MAR — Those who find themselves on the wrong side of the tracks may also be on the wrong side of the law, and at some time in the near future in Del Mar, that could mean a day in court and a fine.
At the request of North County Transit District, and all in the name of safety, law enforcement officers from the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department will begin writing tickets to anyone trespassing on the tracks.
That applies to surfers crossing them to hit the waves and pedestrians walking or jogging alongside them almost anywhere in Del Mar.
But the violations aren’t coming without warnings. Ubiquitous signs are placed beside the tracks informing people it is dangerous and illegal to walk on the rail line. “No Trespassing” has been stenciled on the sides of the tracks.
Since March 10, fliers have been handed out to anyone walking, jogging or crossing where those movements aren’t permitted.
The efforts are part of a pilot program in Del Mar that will be used to develop a larger safety campaign focused on NCTD’s approximately 80 miles of track.
Del Mar was selected because of its many hot spots, or areas where trespassers are often observed, according to NCTD officials.
“This is an area of concern for our engineers,” Laynie Weaver, NCTD’s safety and emergency preparedness manager, said. “There’s a high volume of trespassing here.”
It is likely a problem area because there is only one legal crossing in the city, on Coast Boulevard in between Powerhouse Community Center and Seagrove Park. So anyone wanting to surf or just get to the beach at the south end of the city must walk about a mile to 15th Street to hit the sand without breaking the law.
In the past seven years there have been seven serious or fatal incidents in Del Mar in which there was a collision with a person or vehicle, Weaver said.
That includes suicides and the recent death of former Mayor Lou Terrell, who died Jan. 3 while saving his dog from an oncoming train around 11th Street.
It may not seem like an extraordinary number of accidents. “One is too many,” Jaime Becerra, NCTD’s chief of transit enforcement, said.
The agency is currently compiling data to compare that number to similar-sized areas.
“Are you really going to try to nail everybody who’s crossing?” a surfer checking out the waves from the Eighth Street cul-de-sac asked Weaver and Becerra. “You’re going to have a really hard time getting people to stop. I won’t stop.”
He said the accidents are mostly a result of a lack of common sense. “People aren’t being smart enough to look both ways,” he said.
But Weaver and Becerra said it’s not that simple. About 60 trains pass through the city daily.
“The closer you are to the tracks, it becomes an optical illusion that they aren’t moving that fast,” Becerra said.
When a northbound train passed by the surfer and his friend sitting at the end of Eighth Street, they estimated it was going between 45 and 50 mph. They were off by about 20 mph.
Weaver said northbound trains tend to travel 65 mph further north along the bluffs and slow closer to the grade crossing. Southbound trains usually go 65 mph as they approach the Coast Boulevard crossing, slow to about 50 mph through the crossing and are back up to about 65 mph about a half mile away.
“Trains appear to be traveling much slower than their actual speed because of their size and mass, much like watching an airplane landing,” Weaver said. “It looks to be moving slow but final approach speed is over 150 mph. Trains also appear to be farther away than they really are.”
Weaver said modern trains are also incredibly quiet. “You don’t hear the clickety clack as they are coming down the tracks like you used to in the old days,” she said.
Approaching trains may be hard to miss at a crossing, where there are flashing lights, bells and horns. Weaver said ambient noise such as waves mask the sound of an oncoming train away from the crossing.
The surfer also claimed visitors, not locals, were the problem because they aren’t used to the trains.
“Locals do tend to be more savvy, while visitors are a bit more naïve,” Weaver said. “But that still doesn’t make it legal.”
“We want to make sure people are safe,” Becerra said.
Once a citation is issued, a court appearance is mandatory. There, a judge will determine the fine based on the circumstances, Weaver said.
The best way to avoid a day in court is to stay off the tracks unless you are at a legal crossing.
If you are at the crossing, “be aware of the signals, don’t try to beat them and stop when the noise starts,” Becerra said.
NCTD originally asked that enforcement begin in April, but officials decided to continue the education phase indefinitely.
“No date has been set to begin enforcement,” Frances Schnall, an NCTD spokeswoman, said. “It just seemed like a good approach to continue with the education and outreach since it has been an overall positive campaign,” she said.