ENCINITAS — A recent spate of deaths along North County train tracks has once again raised the question of what officials can do to make the tracks less accessible to the public.
The latest death occurred Tuesday morning, when a man was struck and killed after allegedly jumping in front of a northbound Amtrak Coaster commuter train near the transit center just south of E Street between South Coast Highway and South Vulcan Avenue in downtown Encinitas.
San Diego County Sheriff’s deputies responded after receiving a call shortly before 5 a.m. of a possible pedestrian trespassing fatality. The train was traveling around 75 mph when it struck the victim.
The victim was described as a white male in his late 50s but has not been identified, according to San Diego County Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Burk.
Authorities said they couldn’t rule out suicide as a possible reason for the accident, but further details surrounding the death remain unclear.
This incident marks the fourth pedestrian fatality along the railroad tracks in North County in the last month.
Last week, a southbound Amtrak train traveling at just under 80 mph struck and killed a woman seated on the tracks South Vulcan Avenue, between G and H Streets, according to witness statements.
On April 25, a man dove in front a train in Oceanside and was killed before he could be taken to the hospital. About ten days later, a 42-year-old female pedestrian standing on the tracks was killed by an Amtrak Pacific Surfliner train near the Sorrento Valley station, severely delaying service between Old Town San Diego and Solana Beach.
So far this year, there have been seven fatal incidents in which a train has struck a person on the tracks, and nine “strikes” overall, according to statistics provided by the North County Transit District.
Last year, there were 15 fatal strikes on the rails and 24 total strikes, the highest number of incidents over the past five years. Since 2012, 70 people have died in such incidents.
Many of the incidents have occurred in Encinitas, where the train tracks are largely at grade and are not fenced off. Pedestrians frequently traverse the tracks to get to the beaches, especially the communities of Leucadia and Cardiff-by-the-Sea.
The dynamic of historical illegal crossings, lack of funding to fence or lower the tracks below grade level and the public sentiment opposed to fencing has stymied efforts over the years.
In Encinitas, officials have been working for years to build safe crossings in the event NCTD does fence off the rail right of way. But those efforts have been complicated by efforts to quiet train horn noise and the cost for such crossings.
Additionally, officials said, some people have questioned spending hundreds of millions in trenching the tracks, which would eliminate traditional – albeit illegal – beach crossings as a measure to reduce train deaths when many of the deaths are suicides.
“It is a very difficult and complicated issue and each death pains me terribly,” said Councilman Tony Kranz, who serves on the NCTD Board of Directors. “And we struggle with the challenges that we have, finding the resources to make the corridor safer. One thing that makes it difficult is the overwhelming sentiment that people are able to cross the tracks without getting hit by a train. Some people feel it is just unnecessary.
“The reality is, although NCTD doesn’t get into cause of death, in the vast majority of these cases, the decedent decided to take their own life, and in the end, I don’t know what we are going to be able to do to keep that from happening,” Kranz added.
But Kranz said he likens it to the question of whether having a gun in the house where someone is suicidal is more dangerous to that person than removing the gun.
“Experts will tell you that it is (safer),” Kranz said. “My goal is to make it more difficult for people to step in front of a train, and finding resources to do that.”
Efforts to trench the remainder of the rail way received a tangential boost when the state legislature adopted AB 805, the bill that reformed the region’s planning agency, SANDAG, and allowed for regional transit agencies to put revenue measures on the ballot.
This would allow for NCTD to pursue a sales-tax measure that could pay for regional transit projects such as trenching.
Kranz, however, said that even that faces an uphill battle as the current NCTD board majority has taken an anti-tax increase pledge.
“So we’re back to the whole battle of whether it is reasonable to raise revenue in order to do something like this,” he said.