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Experts Try to Stop the 'Ghost Train'

Officials with the Orange County Transportation Authority addressed the San Juan Caistrano City Council Tuesday.

When a traffic expert is before the City Council for any reason, it’s as good a time as any to discuss the No. 1 concern of residents: the railroad crossing at Del Obispo Street.

So when Orange County Transportation Authority CEO Will Kempton came before San Juan Capistrano leaders Tuesday, ostensibly to discuss several projects in the city, the real focus was traffic on Del Obispo, either caused by

  • The red light at the tracks, known as the  to prevent traffic stopped at nearby intersections from backing up onto the tracks
  • Gates down but no train passing by, known in San Juan Capo-lingo as the “ghost train”

“Mayor pro tem [John Taylor] and I were stopped by the  and we were late, so we get to live through this, too,” Councilwoman Laura Freese said, adding that constituents stuck in traffic will sometimes call her, threatening to recall the entire council if nothing is done.

OCTA has been studying both problems, with the most recent attention given to the ghost train phenomenon, Kempton said.

“The study is nearly complete,” Kempton said, “We’re hoping to have the initial results at the end of this week.”

Among possible solutions to the ghost train problem is having trains approach the depot at slower speeds and making switch modifications, Kempton said, although he doesn’t expect any one solution to be the end-all.

Still, Kempton, he won’t give up.

“I’m absolutely committed to trying to fix this problem,” he said. “It’s an inconvenience to the residents, it makes little sense to me, and we want to do what we can to try and fix this problem.”

“If it doesn’t do something to something to alleviate the problem, it’s going back,” Kempton said. “We need a fix.”

Freese said she hopes the solution is “sooner, rather than later.”

Councilman Sam Allevato called the traffic on Del Obispo the “perfect storm.” Both traffic and ghost trains have been an issue for years, but the city’s widening of the Trabuco Creek bridge and the queue-cutter have only exacerbated the problem.

“Now it’s really gone to be especially annoying,” he said.

“Sincerely, I am really committed to resolving this issue,” Kempton responded. ”I’m on your side on this one.”

In Other News

In other business, the City Council:

  • Heard from a resident, Rhen Kohan, who spoke out against SDG&E’s plans to upgrade the San Juan Capistrano  at 30127 Camino Capistrano. “It’s just too big a change to too small a space of ground,” Kohan said.
  • Honored four Eagle Scouts, Brandon Burger; Kevin Cotugno; Brendan Luke; and Ian Whelan, for their Eagle Scout projects, including organizational shelves for grade-school classrooms and music rooms in San Juan Capistrano.
  • Recognized Gunnar Ohlund, an incoming freshman at San Diego State – who completed his own Eagle Scout project in February – for coming up with the name of the open space area formerly known as the Lemon Grove Site. Ohlund offered the winning recommendation of Reata Park and Events Center. He said he wanted to highlight the historic, cowboy nature of the town, and named the park Reata, Spanish for “lasso.”
  • Voted 3-1, with Councilman Derek Reeve opposed, to approve the continuation of funding for consulting services for the Gang Prevention Services in Partnership through Pepperdine University. Although most of the council favors the work done by the , they require more quantitative and throughout statistics of the success rate of the service in the near future.
  • Took an up-close look at an Olympic torch Pearl Harbor and World War II Navy veteran Les Blair, a San Juan Capistrano resident, carried down Pacific Coast Highway in 1996 as part of the Atlantic Olympics relay. 
Dusty W Otero August 09, 2012 at 02:20 AM
and dusty Otero spoke on what is going on with not watering and picking the Sweet juicy oranges on our historic orange grove,,,I do understand that we are going to finish the construction out there and what not BUT WE NEED TO take care of those tree,s and not let them get sick and spread a tree virus,,,Thats not fair to our valley...and Bad for the valley,to have rotten oranges on the land...I know what the orchard farmers said way back than...never let your crop drop...
Clint Worthington August 09, 2012 at 02:35 AM
I had suggested the fix for the Ghost Train many times to the City Council of trains that are going to stop at the station must slow down on the approach to the station. The cost for this fix is less than $10.00
Matt Gaffney August 09, 2012 at 04:57 PM
Go get 'em Clint. I'll spring the $10.00.
V. Duvall August 10, 2012 at 02:31 AM
Shoot, what's the $10 bucks for? I can't imagine....
Hercules1944 August 10, 2012 at 03:07 AM
I do not know about the traffic lights, but as far as the sticky crossing gates has anyone on the City Council bothered to contact the rairoad involved or the FRA? http://www.fra.dot.gov/ The crossing gates are a railroad problem, not the city's.
Clint Worthington August 10, 2012 at 10:27 PM
It is the approximate amount for the cost of printing a one page change to the Sub Division General Orders. That is all it takes.
Clint Worthington August 10, 2012 at 10:34 PM
I wish it was easy as that. The OCTA purchased the right of way from the ATSF (now BNSF) and is responsible as owner of the right of way for the crossing gates. OCTA contracts with the SCRRA (Southern California Regional Railroad Authority aka Metrolink) for the maintenance and repair of the crossing gates and signaling system. As part of the Measure M2 half percent tax increase, part of that money was to establish Quiet Zones throughout the County. Measure M2 paid 88% of the cost and the City paid 12%. Was started out as a 1.7 million improvement ballooned to a total of 9.2 million dollars for our City paid for by the taxpayers. When the City paid for the Quiet Zone crossing, the City also takes on the entire liability of the railroad crossing. For passenger trains that liability has been capped at 250 million dollars. For freight trains (BNSF) the liability is unlimited. I explained time after time to the City Council that the City cannot afford to take on this liability. In short, the City has been unable to find insurance. Until the City finds insurance, there will not be a Quiet Zone. In addition, the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and the FRA must approve the Quiet Zone. To date, neither government agency has approved the Quiet Zone.
Clint Worthington August 10, 2012 at 10:42 PM
The "sticky gates" are the result of of southbound passenger trains stopping at the station (locally called the Ghost Train). As the maximum authorized speed for passenger trains at this crossing is 55 mph, the gates must go down in anticipation of the train going through the crossing. The simple solution is for all southbound trains that will be stopping at the station must slow down on the approach to the station. This will stop the gates from being activated. The cost is about $10.00 The crossing gates are the City's problem as the City also installed a traffic signal at the crossing which is not a requirement of the Quiet Zone. This has compounded the Ghost Train problem. 9.2 million dollars of taxpayer money has been spent for a crossing that fails to work and the City has no insurance. Council Member Sam Allevato voted on every aspect of the boondoggle of a crossing. Please, do not re-elect him.
Lynn August 11, 2012 at 06:03 PM
It is unfortunate that this problem has resulted in me and my family avoiding the merchants in San Juan entirely. We refuse to shop, bank, etc. due to the traffic and delayed traffic signals.
Clint Worthington August 11, 2012 at 06:22 PM
Lynn, if you get a chance, could you please call City Hall at 949 493 1171 and let them know that. I agree with you 100%. Thank you.

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