Death on the Tracks Puts Focus on Need For Safe Crossing

train-richards

On Thursday morning around 9:30 am, a 54-year-old transient and member of the local homeless community, Danny “Santa” Ferguson, was apparently crossing the tracks from north to south near Hickory Lane.

According to his friends, Mr. Ferguson may have been intoxicated, and he attempted to run across the tracks to beat the train but tripped and was struck by the train.

Davis Police Lt. Paul Doroshev told the Vanguard that the Amtrak Police Department will lead the investigation of the death of Mr. Ferguson.

The Amtrak Police media people told the Vanguard they had no additional information and that the investigation is pending.

In a statement to the Vanguard, Mayor Joe Krovoza said, “We are deeply saddened by the passing of a Davis resident on the tracks at the Depot today.”

Unfortunately, the death on the tracks focuses the already brewing issue of a fence.

The Vanguard spoke with Bill Eckberg, Roy Shy, Jason Drourr and Frank Jennings, all of whom were close friends of the deceased.

Mr. Shy told the Vanguard that he considered Mr. Ferguson to be his best friend.  Mr. Drourr, visibly broken up, said that they had viewed the body.  He said when he approached, an officer told him, at about 20 feet, to “please just walk away.”

For them, they were mourning the tragic loss of a good friend, whom they described as a nice guy.

At the same time, they also shared general agreement that a fence would not have helped, and this can just be viewed as a tragic accident.

Mr. Eckberg said that he thought that such a tragedy “could have been avoided if they would all just work together.” He was referring to the community’s desire to have some sort of safe crossing, which would not have been solved by the fence.

They would love to see a footbridge (above-grade), but agreed that even a small fence, with an appropriate, regulated opening, would be a vast improvement.

Unfortunately, the tremendous tragedy aside here, there are tremendous policy implications for this tragic accident.

Union Pacific has already expressed the desire to build a fence along a good stretch of Olive Drive.  The City has opposed the construction of a fence without a safe crossing option.

Mayor Krovoza told the Vanguard on Thursday, “The City will redouble its efforts to secure a safe, affordable at-grade crossing of the tracks, and we expect to work with all parties collaboratively on this project.  The City Council has approved an official filing with the California Public Utilities Commission for an at-grade crossing, and after a 30-day waiting period is met, the formal application will be filed with the CPUC in mid-July. “

At a meeting earlier this month, Attorney Harriet Steiner reiterated that the city’s official position is that an at-grade crossing is the most achievable solution that meets the city financial constraints and addresses the needed safety conditions.

Residents like Alan Miller have noted that, for the most part, a fence would not prevent most of the fatalities that have occurred on the stretch of tracks that would be fenced off.

It was a point the Mayor emphasized as well.

“Over the last 20 years, 14 track fatalities have occurred in the Davis area,” the Mayor said.  “Only two — until today — have occurred in the stretch of tracks near the Depot.  Of these two, one was a suicide and one involved intoxication.  The circumstances and location are always unique, and so prevention is a challenge.”

Given the description of the tragedy, it is not clear that a fence would have prevented this one either, as the victim appears to have foolishly tried to beat the train on foot while intoxicated, and to have tripped and fallen.

Moreover, the proposed fence is planned for the south, Olive Drive, side of the tracks, which may or may not deter crossings from the north side. This current tragedy appears to have been initiated from the north side, although the Vanguard was unable to confirm that at this time.
Mayor Krovoza believes the at-grade crossing remains the best and safest plan that the city can afford.

“The City’s at-grade crossing plan is the best plan for safety and mobility within current funding constraints,” he told the Vanguard.  “A fence on the south side of the tracks at the Depot, absent a well-planned at-grade crossing, will only push trespassing to other areas or encourage vandalism of a fence.  A clear and safe crossing will direct everyone to a single area where there will be safety overall, and safety in numbers.”

However, the city’s move for an at-grade crossing has been opposed by both the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Agency (CCJPA).

CPUC staff is of the opinion that a grade-separated pedestrian/bicycle crossing is the safest mitigation measure for this location. They write, “A grade-separated crossing would eliminate all potential conflicts between pedestrians, bicyclist and trains.”

They add, “There, is no substantial evidence in this MND [Mitigated Negative Declaration] to support the City of Davis proposal for an at-grade pedestrian crossing as opposed to a grade-separated pedestrian crossing, because it is feasible to construct a grade-separated crossing. While the City states that the most logical location for any crossing is in the vicinity of the SP Depot train station, there is no safety analysis provided in the MND to support this proposal.”

However, there are significant concerns about the availability of funding for a grade-separated crossing.  Ms. Steiner, at the last meeting, argued that a grade-separated crossing is not achievable, due to the high cost of such undertaking, and that it may and probably would require taking out existing housing in order to achieve it.

Back in April, Union Pacific moved quickly and without consultation with the city to construct a gate to block off Slatter’s Court.

At the time, the city had informed Union Pacific Railroad that it does not support the closure of the gates without an approved alternative at-grade crossing, according to the release

“The city also requested 48-hours’ notice before Union Pacific initiated any construction work to close the gates or begin building a fence,” the city said back in April. “The city is extremely disappointed that UPRR has chosen to proceed with construction of the fence to block these gates.”

Mayor Joe Krovoza in April told the Vanguard, “The fences that now block access at Slatter’s Court and Davis Mobile Estates are counter to the City’s concerted and good faith efforts since January to work with UP to find an overall solution to Depot access by Olive Drive residents.”

“This unilateral action by UP flies in the face of what the city believed was progress, and only makes more difficult a permanent, safety-enhancing solution,” the mayor continued.

“If the new fences are ignored, the only product of this action will be bad will.  That’s unfortunate and unproductive,” Mayor Krovoza said.

Now the fear is that this incident will spark a reactive move by Union Pacific.  The Vanguard was warned back in December the worst thing that could happen would be a fatality on the tracks, and now that is precisely the scenario that will be played out.

Mayor Krovoza on Thursday urged patience on the part of Union Pacific.

“Union Pacific should refrain from proceeding with their fence plan unless they fully cooperate with the City and coordinate with us on the design and CPUC approval of the at-grade crossing,” he said.

He concluded, “The City looks forward to learning more about the details and to further evaluating the safest path forward for our citizens.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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20 Comments

  1. Matt Williams

    There is no bullet-proof solution for this problem.

    Even with an at-grade crossing this accident would probably have happened, since Mr. Ferguson was coming from north to south. Unless UP plans to put fences up on both sides of the railroad tracks there will be nothing to restrain southbound pedestrians from walking onto the tracks at the wrong time. Add in the intoxication factor, and the report I heard (not confirmed) that this was Mr. Ferguson’s second accident on the tracks in less than a week’s time (the first is reported to have resulted in a nasty head wound), and the fact that this accident happened is not a surprise. A tragedy, but not a surprise.

    I’m not sure what the best solution is, but this sad event will clearly cause all parties to work toward a permanent solution that provides the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

    My condolences to Bill Eckberg, Roy Shy, Jason Drourr, Frank Jennings and all Mr. Ferguson’s friends for their loss.

  2. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]…to support the City of Davis proposal for an at-grade pedestrian crossing as opposed to a grade-separated pedestrian crossing…[/quote]

    Could you please clarify the difference for readers. Is an at-grade pedestrian crossing at street level, whereas the grade-separated pedestrian crossing an underground tunnel? Thanks…

  3. David M. Greenwald

    Good question.

    A grade-separated crossing would be either an underpass or an overpass.

    Whereas an at-grade crossing would be some sort of protected path across the tracks that would require pedestrians to walk on the tracks.

  4. Mr Obvious

    Yes we need a safer crossing to protect drunks who cross the tracks. This is ridiculous. Are people no longer responsible for anything. Really if you get down to it the common item in all train VS people crashes is the train. What Davis should do is pass an ordinance that trains can’t pass through Davis.

    Yes, it is sad that the guy got killed. If someone is going to play frogger with a train they will eventually lose. I crossed a set of tracks every day for six years as I rode my bike to school and never got hit by a train. It really wasn’t that hard. You listen for the whistle and watch the crossing arm. Even if your trying to cross in an area where there isn’t an official crossing you can still safely cross. How many people cross tracks in the US every day and don’t get killed? Millions.

  5. Alphonso

    “There is no bullet-proof solution for this problem. “

    Actually there is – simply walk around, using Richard’s Blvd. Nobody walks across a freeway, they go to the nearest overpass. Walking 3 blocks is not such a great hardship.

  6. David M. Greenwald

    Mr. Obvious: What about the people in the train who are possibly put at risk?

    Alphonso: You are talking about walking perhaps half a mile compared with a few hundred feet, it’s a big difference when you are out there walking around and see how far Richards Takes you out of the way.

  7. Mr Obvious

    [quote]Mr. Obvious: What about the people in the train who are possibly put at risk? [/quote]

    If trains commony derailed when they ran of pedestrian I would say a lot. Since trains don’t derail when they hit pedestrians I would so none.

  8. David M. Greenwald

    I get the point, but there’s a risk of injury for others. And also it shuts down the train completely for hours, so commuters will be very late. I hate to sound callous but that is a consideration as well.

  9. Rifkin

    To my mind this is a question of opportunity. I don’t know what motivated Danny Ferguson to walk across the railroad tracks. However, it strikes me as obvious that if we–either we as a city or we including Union Pacific–make it inconvenient to cross the tracks on foot by putting up more fencing, then people who are drunk or suicidal or are juveniles with poor judgment would be much less likely to put themselves in harms way. That is, the opportunity would not present itself so much to them.

    There are people in Davis–a lot of outspoken people who live in the Olive Drive area and supporters of theirs who live elsewhere–who seem to think the ideal with regard to this issue is [i]making things convenient.[/i] Instead of folks walking or bicycling a couple of blocks to Richards Blvd and crossing through the subway, they insist that it is a god-given right to traverse the tracks at Slater’s Court, because that will save them 5-10 minutes. I strongly differ from this point of view. I think what we need to do, until there is money for an overpass (and that may never come), is to make the illegal and dangerous crossing less convenient.

    I regularly ride my bike home from West Sacramento by way of Olive Drive. (I approach on the old bike path which runs from Road 105 to Olive Drive, under the Mace overpass.) Every time I take Olive to Richards, wait at the always red light, cross Olive and take the bike bore up to 1st Street and ride through campus on my way home.

    It’s an easy bike ride. It is no challenge at all to ride down Olive to Richards and back up into the downtown. I don’t understand all of the excuse-making for those who live on Olive Drive and refuse to take a few extra minutes for a safe crossing into downtown.

    If there is anyone in Davis who should not be making this excuse for those making the illegal crossing it is out mayor, Joe Krovoza. I am certain Joe has made the safe crossing through the subway many times on his bicycle. Before he ever sniffed public office, he was the president of Davis Bicycles! ([url]http://www.davisbicycles.org/wordpress/[/url]) And while Joe was the head of that group, he was advocating for a connection from the Dave Pelz overcrossing to the old bike path which goes to Olive Drive. So Joe knows that bike path. He knows it is perfectly safe for bike riders on Olive to go to Richards and through the underpass. Yet for some reason he has been pandering to the Olive Drive residents in opposing fencing in the area, fencing which perhaps needs to be on both sides of the tracks to take away the opportunity for crossers with poor judgment.

    Unless and until a new overpass is built, adults in our community should not be fighting against fences which discourage illegal and unsafe crossings. The adults should be showing the children who attend Harper Jr. High how they can safely and speedily ride the old bike path up to Mace and cruise safely down to their school. There is no need at all for any school children who live in that area to make an illegal and unsafe crossing over the tracks.

  10. medwoman

    ” yet for some reason he has been pandering to…..”
    I do not believe that this is an accurate reflection of Mayor Krovoza’s position. As a resident of Old East Davis, I have spoken to him on several occasions about the proposed fence. My take from these conversations is not that he opposes a fence, but that he opposes a fence that is not part of a comprehensive solution. As Alan Miller has pointed out, the fence as initially proposed would be unlikely to have prevented
    More than one or two of the 14 deaths, and from my interpretation of the locations and situations of the deaths, perhaps none of them.
    I am supportive of the placement of a fence that will prove effective in keeping people off the tracks.
    However, having walked the lenghth of the proposed fence, it looked as though it would merely shift illegal crossins to the periphery where a crossing attempt is likely to be even more dangerous. Also, I would not support a fence along only one side of the tracks since in my granted somewhat limited experience of owning a house less than one block from the tracks for only six months, there is also significant north to south foot traffic.

  11. Greg Kuperberg

    You tell them, Rich! Convenience is great when all else is equal. But we should take safety to mean actual safety, and not use it as a euphemism for convenience. And I agree that Joe was pandering to the crowd. He claimed that the intersections to the west are “absolutely less safe” even though I found no record that anyone has died at those intersections in decades. In general I think that Joe is a good guy, but I guess he tries too hard to agree with every resident of Davis. Alan Miller, for his part, hasn’t “pointed out” anything all that sensible. His argument has been to point to the other factors in each of these deaths, and then throw up his hands and say that a fence wouldn’t have helped. But as public safety goes, that’s pretzel logic. There is a reason that Olive Drive is the most dangerous half mile in Davis, and it isn’t just because the men who died their tend to be drunk or crazy. It’s also because there are trains.

    Here are two other facts of train safety that people should realize: (1) Train tracks where drunks often die, are also train tracks where children could die. After all there was the case of Andrew Mockus, who might still be alive if he had been shoved into a fence and not into the path of a train. (2) Train engineers often slow down in areas where they know that people scamper across; then people often think that there is no problem because the trains are slow. It’s just completely wrong to trespass and take train brakes for granted.

  12. Alan Miller

    “Alan Miller, for his part, hasn’t “pointed out” anything all that sensible. His argument has been to point to the other factors in each of these deaths, and then throw up his hands and say that a fence wouldn’t have helped. But as public safety goes, that’s pretzel logic.”

    The logic used to judge this pretzel logic is pretzel logic. #yawn#

    Remember, Ted Kaczynski was a math professor . . . just sayin’.

  13. medwoman

    Perhaps neither of you have had the opportunity to discuss this issue with Alan Miller or Joe Krovoza in person. On the basis of a number of conversations, again I would like to stress that neither of them opposes a fence. The first conversation I had about the fence began with Alan stating that he favored the placement of a fence. I think what we can all agree on is that the concern here is safety. The problem that I see is that the limited length and proposed placement do not adequately address the issue of safety. The limited blockage to the entrance to Slater’s
    Court which I believe is what you are alluding to Rich (and please correct me if I am wrong), did not prevent Mr. Ferguson’s attempt to cross.
    And as Matt Williams pointed out, perhaps an at grade crossing would not have been preventative either.

    What I believe is important is to keep in mind the central issue of safety. I also believe that just as we address neighborhood concerns with other issues, I think it is important to consider the views of the residents of the neighborhoods most affected, Olive Drive and Old East Davis. In this case I think that one man’s “pandering” is another’s careful consideration of varying points of view

  14. Greg Kuperberg

    medwoman – I wish I could tell you that Joe Krovoza carefully considered all points of view. I know him a little bit, and as I have said, he’s a nice guy, a good man. But, in order to carefully consider all points of view, you must also be right. In this case, I don’t see how he can possibly be right. I agree, he cares about safety, but he’s putting convenience in front of safety. He and others in Davis have downplayed and questioned the safety value of the fence in order to justify that. Joe’s negotiations with Union Pacific and railroad agencies have collapsed into a quarrel that I don’t think that Davis can win.

    I understand that the people most at risk here are not the same as the residents on Olive Drive who organized the “Stop the Fence” rally. So there is a collision of opposing interests among residents of Davis, and I suppose that my side of the debate got outvoted locally this past year. But we have to remember that Davis is not an island. The city would do better to preserve its credibility with these regional partners — even Union Pacific is not really an enemy in the end — than to tilt at windmills.

  15. medwoman

    Greg

    “…You must also be right”

    Unfortunately I think that Matt Williams had this one right. there is no bullet proof solution. What there should be is a solution that minimizes risk. I am not convinced that UP has it “right” either. If I thought that short strip of fence on one side of the track would improve safety, I would fully support it. The problem for me is that after reviewing the locations and circumstances of the previous and now the most recent death, it is unclear to me how this fence would have helped.

    I want to make it clear that ,for me, this is not about convenience. I live on J St about I/2 block from the tracks and walk to work in South Davis. It adds about ten minutes to my walk to not be able to directly cross the tracks. I do not mind the “inconvenience” of the walk.
    What I do mind is when people ( in this case you and Rich) make the assumption that you understand the motivation of everyone who opposes the construction of the fence alone, which you have apparently decided is the “right” solution. As I stated to the CC during the public
    Comment, I want the safest solution possible which for me includes fencing both sides of the track as part of a comprehensive solution including a safer means of direct passage.

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