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City Finds a Temporary Fix for 'Ghost Train' Phenomenon

Officials move forward with some solutions while they wait for a more sophisticated, computerized system to come online.

The “ghost train” sounds like the perfect phrase for a mysterious phenomenon in our cowboy town just before Halloween.

What it’s really referring to is the arms of the railroad crossing on Del Obispo Street descending without an oncoming train.

In other words, a situation commuters may find as vexing if not as scary as a ghost.

But transportation and city officials believe they have a fix for this problem that has plagued San Juan Capistrano for decades.

The City Council and Transportation Commission sat down last night to discuss the ghost train phenomenon with two representatives from the Orange County Transportation Authority Wednesday to discuss solutions.

"Most of our constitutents don’t care what the solution is as long as there is a solution," said Councilman Derek Reeve.

The Ultimate Solution

The “ultimate solution” is something called Positive Train Control, a computer- and GPS-controlled system that can monitor signals, train speed and even stop trains, said Jennifer Bergener, director of OCTA’s rail program.

The federal government has mandated railroad overseers install the system by 2015 because it’s said to be able to prevent accidents like the 2008 Chatsworth train wreck that cost 25 people their lives, she said.

But it’s also several years away from installation in Orange County, Bergener said.

So county officials have come up with a temporary solution that may – they’re not completely sure – eliminate the ghost train altogether, she said. Or, the arms may go down and then quickly up again on occasion.

Right now, when the arms errantly descend, the delay for drivers along Del Obispo is about 70 seconds, Bergener said. If with the temporary solution the arms do go down, it will mean a 5-10-second delay.

The Temporary Solution

So what is this temporary solution? It requires slowing the trains’ speed from the north as it approaches the station and removing a second side track which connects to the main track near the parking garage at Franciscan Plaza, Bergener said.

When the second track, or “siding” as she called it,” is gone, train signals will be able to “see” farther up the line, she said. They work not unlike a radar gun, bouncing signals to determine speeds. A longer view will make the arms work more accurately, she said.

Darrell Johnson, deputy chief executive officer for OCTA, said the next steps are to figure out the engineering, the costs and the funding sources. While he didn’t want to offer a timeline, when pegged, he said it would probably take six months to a year to pencil out and get the approvals.

Councilman John Taylor, who lives next to the tracks downtown, said while he waits for the more sophisticated system to come online, he’ll take any improvement.

“I’ve crossed that crossing 25, 30 years ,and it’s always had ghost trains as long as I can remember,” he said. “Even 70 percent of the time [reduction in ghost trains] is a much less delay in our community.” 

Penny Arévalo October 12, 2012 at 09:36 PM
To get the red light removed, the City Council would have to petition the California Public Utilities Commission. The process may take two years, and there's no guarantee it will be approved.
rob h October 12, 2012 at 10:09 PM
I don't thing anyone suggested to get rid of the light, just fix it to where it ONLY works when there is a REAL TRAIN. If the city wants to go to the extreme of removing it (which woiuld be another stupid move on their part) why hasn't the city petitioned the CPUC a year or two ago? People have been complaining about this for a long time. Now, they are trying coming up with band aids?
rob h October 12, 2012 at 10:11 PM
Just reprogram the light so it ONLY works when there is a train, no other time. This would only take a few days to do this.
Penny Arévalo October 12, 2012 at 10:38 PM
The purpose of that light is not to stop traffic when a train is coming. The purpose of that light is to stop traffic from backing up onto the tracks from other nearby intersections. Please see these articles: http://sanjuancapistrano.patch.com/articles/city-did-sign-off-on-aggravating-traffic-signal-at-del-obispo-railroad-crossing http://sanjuancapistrano.patch.com/articles/delays-at-railroad-tracks-to-continue
Pat Bauer October 13, 2012 at 08:20 PM
I have many times experienced the red light when there is no backup. Can it be adjusted to be more accurate. Agree, no need to remove the light just adjust so that it works properly and traffic backup is not so horrible. When I moved here 15 months ago I was bragging to friends about how well the city did with traffic control. Then all the "improvements" arrived and it turned into a nightmare. I think people just want a reasonable solution not necessarily a complete do over.

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