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.”