REGION — The head of the North County Transit District agreed at the Sept. 15 board of directors meeting to work with coastal cities along the rail trail to find ways to get pedestrians safely across the train tracks to the beach without breaking the law.
But despite requests from board members, specifically those from Del Mar and Encinitas, and nearly a dozen speakers that included a former and current county supervisor, he said he could not commit to backing off increased enforcement efforts that began on Aug. 1.
And according to a sheriff’s deputy, trespassing tickets issued since then are for $75 infractions, plus court fees, rather than more expensive misdemeanors.
The nine-member board is made up of sitting council members from eight North County cities and one county supervisor.
“That puts an unusual pressure on us to be responsive” to the situation because all are elected by residents in their respective jurisdictions, Encinitas City Councilman Tony Kranz said.
He asked what the regulatory impacts to NCTD would be if the board requested an agenda item seeking an end to enforcing the trespassing laws.
“As the executive director of North County Transit District I would never make such a recommendation to the board,” Matt Tucker said. “It would be outside of the scope of what I would be allowed to do. I could not come forward with something that I know was diametrically opposed to the law and would directly bring the transit district into risk.”
Tucker said in addition to being subject to fines from the federal government, NCTD would be open to significant litigation.
“I don’t think I’ve known any railroad who’s made a decision to say they’re going to proactively violate the law,” he said.
After two years of outreach and education efforts and “in response to steadily increasing incidents of reported railway right-of-way … trespassing, near misses and emergency actions by train crews to avoid contact with trespassers (ranging from sounding horns, bells, and whistles to putting trains into emergency stop)” NCTD assigned nine law enforcement officials to patrol the tracks.
Along the entire corridor owned by NCTD, 372 verbal and written warnings and 118 citations were issued from Aug. 1 through Sept. 5. A city-by-city breakdown was not provided.
Three arrests were also made. Two were for misdemeanor trespassing, likely because violators did not cooperate or refused to provide requested personal information, Sgt. Jason King said.
The other was for narcotics possession.
King said NCTD gave out the written warnings, while law enforcement issued verbal warnings or tickets. He said officers will use discretion when deciding whether to write a ticket or give a warning.
“Our goal is education,” he said. “So in some cases if I can prevent you from going across the tracks, it’s better to stop and explain the law. But unfortunately, a citation is a form of education and sometimes it warranted.”
King said in the past, violators received tickets for misdemeanor trespassing, which meant a fine of up to $500 or six months in jail.
When the increased enforcement was requested, his department found a Public Utility Commission code that is applicable to NCTD because it owns the railway.
“It’s not a section that is used a lot simply because it most cases (a district doesn’t) own the track,” he said. “But in this case it allows us to write an infraction ticket versus a misdemeanor. … We thought it was a much better educational tool to use.”
After being ticketed Aug. 6 while showing out-of-town guests the view from the bluffs, Del Mar resident Frank Stonebanks said he was “catalyzed into action.”
He formed a grassroots organization and collected more than 500 signatures on a petition asking that tickets not be issued when a train is not in sight, at least two designated crossings between Sixth and 11th streets be established and diligent efforts be made to remove the tracks from the bluff within 10 years.
There were several other requests at the September NCTD meeting for softer enforcement for those who are trying to cross the tracks just to get to the beach or bluffs.
Udo Wahn said the bluffs are a safer place to walk, run, walk a dog, keep fit and nurture a healthy body than the roadways.
“The egregious actions of those crossing the tracks in front of a train or clowning around on the tracks would warrant a citation,” he said. “It’s unacceptable … to deny access and to ticket those wanting to enjoy the bluffs and those wanting to get to the beach.”
“It’s a very unfortunate situation that we have here,” Del Mar resident and former Third District County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price said. “The train was there before a lot of the residents but the ocean was there before the train was there. The ocean belongs to all of us.
“Unfortunately this also puts the deputy sheriffs in a … position to enforce a very, very unpopular rule against people that normally would be their strong supporters.
“People that in my opinion are doing things that are so stupid … should be hauled off to jail and fined $1,000,” she added, describing people who stand on the tracks to take photos of an oncoming train. “That’s a ridiculous risk of life. … But people that are minding their own responsibilities should not be penalized like this.”
Encinitas resident Ralph Thielicke said previous efforts to decrease trespassing with aggressive enforcement failed.
“NCTD is not going to achieve its goal without voluntary cooperation of the residents,” he said. “You simply don’t have the resources to patrol the entire right of way. … Residents and visitors have been using the right of way for 50 or 60 years, perhaps even longer, and we aren’t going to stop as long as the beach is on the west side and the residences are on the east side.
“It’s silly to think you’re going to change that,” he added. “Residents also know how to safely cross the tracks because they’ve been doing it for that many years. … The real problem – and NCTD doesn’t seem to focus on this very well – are those people who want to hurt themselves. And ticketing does really nothing to help those troubled individuals.
“If you really wanted to encourage safety you have to find a way to address this group of people,” Thielicke said. “And until you do that and provide better beach access you’re only wasting money and pissing residents off.”
Many called for commonsense solutions. “In response to the NCTD slogan, “See Tracks, Think Train,” Encinitas Councilman Mark Muir said, “See road, think cars.”
Tucker and other NCTD officials said California is No. 1 in the nation for trespassing fatalities on train tracks. They noted that there have been 19 fatalities and 15 injuries in 24 months along the San Diego coastal corridor. No one at the meeting could say how many of those were suicides.
They also said there has been increased pressure from the Federal Railway Administration to mitigate any safety issues or hazards that occur on their rail.
If a fatality or accident occurs the district must put corrective actions in place to demonstrate how the problem is being addressed, they said.
They also noted that accidents and near misses negatively affect the train crew and disrupt train service along the entire corridor, sometimes for up to three hours.
“We are willing to work very cooperatively with the cities,” Tucker said. “We do see opportunities for safety improvements … that provide access directly and in a safe matter. … We just need to get the process moving.”