Patrol: Trains demand respect

RIVERBANK -- As an Amtrak train sped toward the railroad crossing at Terminal Avenue and Claribel Road on Monday afternoon, lights flashed, a whistle sounded and a driver in a beige sedan apparently ignored the warnings. The driver stepped on the gas to scoot under the crossing guard arms as they moved down.

Officials say that kind of risky move happens all too often. It's also illegal.

That's why local law enforcement officers and railroad police fanned out around Riverbank for a public awareness campaign. The goal was to remind drivers and pedestrians to obey the law and stay safe around trains. Stanislaus County sheriff's deputies and railroad police monitored Riverbank train crossings, issuing warnings and citations to violators.

The event came two years after another car at the Terminal and Claribel crossing met a different end. In May 2007, a woman and five children were killed when their vehicle was struck by an Amtrak train. The driver apparently panicked after a crossing guard arm came down on her windshield. She pulled forward onto the tracks and the train hit her sport utility vehicle.

That accident is still fresh in railroad employees' minds, said Ken Johnson, a superintendent with BNSF Railway's Northern California region.

Drivers aren't the only ones who should watch out around trains, officials say. It's dangerous -- and illegal -- to set foot on railroad property.

Trespassers are a constant problem at Riverbank's rail yard, said BNSF train master Danny Escalante. Railroad employees have found ladders propped on a fence on the east side of the rail yard, near Virginia Avenue. People frequently hop the fence to cut through the rail yard, he said.

Many are children walking to and from California Avenue Elementary School. BNSF keeps a camera trained on the fence. Escalante can watch the footage from his office in Riverbank's train yard. He calls deputies when he sees trespassers. He's done that twice since Saturday.

The rail yard is particularly dangerous because trains there move slowly -- and quietly, Johnson said. A train moving as slow as 3 miles per hour can kill someone, he said.

"A lot of times we get people that think the train yard is like a playground," said Ronnie Garcia, a BNSF safety manager. "It's not. It's private property."

Train crossings present their own dangers. Most pedestrians don't realize that it's illegal to walk across train tracks, said Amtrak police officer Mike Pintos. It's illegal to cross tracks unless you're at a designated crossing area.

Pintos was stationed at crossings throughout Riverbank on Monday, watching for careless drivers and walkers. Railroad police issued 10 warnings and seven citations.

Just before 4 p.m., Pintos spotted a woman walking across the tracks near Patterson Road and First Street.

When Pintos questioned the woman, she said she usually drives to a nearby grocery store, but today she walked, crossing the tracks on foot for the first time. Pintos warned her that it's illegal, and dangerous.

"She said it was her first time walking across the tracks," Pinto said. "I told her, it could have been your first time getting killed, too."

Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at or 578-2378.