No agency taking responsibility

-A A +A
By Lee Einer

The railroad crossing north of town, where Michael Esquibel lost his life Jan. 15, is arguably a hazard to motorists.

More to the point, it is a hazard for which no one is taking direct responsibility. And most officials believe it’s someone else’s job.

The Rio Arriba Road crossing, which provides local access to both the city of Las Vegas’ solid waste transfer station and to the Ride to Pride program for youth, is roughly 500 yards from the Interstate 25 overpass. From the crossing, the train tracks are not visible past that point.  

Roughly a hundred yards from the crossing stand trees on both sides of the tracks, further limiting the line of sight for motorists. Once upon the tracks, a motorist can see all the way to the overpass. But if a motorist stops to one side of the crossing to look both ways, that person’s view of the tracks to the south is cut off by the trees.

The northbound Amtrak train, which killed Michael Esquibel, was reported to be traveling at 79 mph, the maximum authorized speed for the track. At that speed, which is slightly less than 40 yards per second, a train will traverse the distance between the trees and the crossing in less than three seconds. A motorist who stopped on one side of the tracks, saw nothing and proceeded forward might have only that long to react and avoid a grisly and untimely death.

The crossing has been the site of two vehicle-train fatalities in the past four months.

There is no warning light or other safety equipment at the site, just signage indicating that it is a railroad crossing.

Neither the city of Las Vegas, the County of San Miguel, the state Department of Transportation, Amtrak or Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which owns the tracks, are accepting responsibility for upgrading safety equipment at the site.

Marc Magliari, a spokesman for Amtrak, attributed the tragedy to a lack of caution.

“The accident was at a marked public crossing, the vehicle obstructing the train by crossing in front of it,” Magliari said. “Unfortunately, these kinds of incidents are all too avoidable if drivers would heed the warnings of the oncoming trains.”  

Asked about the lack of visibility at the crossing, Magliari said, “If your sight line is unsatisfactory, another option the driver has is to roll down the windows and listen for the horn; like the signs used to say, stop, look and listen.”

Magliari said Amtrak is a tenant on Burlington’s tracks, and that Burlington and the state Department of Transportation would be the parties to talk to about safety enhancements at the crossing.

Joe Faust, spokesman for Burlington, said the company does not determine the level of safety protection at an individual crossing. That decision, Faust said, is made by the operating agency in the state, in this case the Department of Transportation, working in conjunction with city and county leadership.

The funding for any equipment, Faust said, would come from state and federal sources. Burlington would install and maintain any of the safety equipment once funded.

“The DOT should certainly know this,” Faust said.  “I don’t want to get into fingerpointing, but the bottom line is that we are not responsible for determining the level of protection at a crossing. “

Paul Gray, district engineer for the state Department of Transportation, said he “did not believe that the DOT was a party to the issue” of safety devices at the site.

“It’s really not the property of the DOT, it’s the property of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad,” Gray said. “The road belongs to whoever owns the transfer station, I’m assuming.”  

The city owns the transfer station.

Department of Transportation spokeswoman Veronica Valencia confirmed that Gray was correct in his assessment and that her agency has no responsibility for safety devices at the crossing.

City Councilman Andy Feldman, in an e-mail to the Optic, said, “It is a county road and out of city limits. I do not agree with Mr. Gray on this one, and we need to get to the bottom of this issue. There needs to be a crossing gate at that intersection.”

But San Miguel County Manager Les Montoya said Rio Arriba is not listed on the county’s road log and is therefore not a county road.  

Montoya said there are many roads in the county that are public right-of-ways but that are not county roads.

“It can be a public right-of-way with no government ownership. I don’t think it is maintained by anybody,” Montoya said.

Montoya also said he is investigating the issue and would have more to say once he receives reports from the county’s insurer and from the state police.

Las Vegas Mayor Tony Marquez said in a Jan. 27 press release that he is sending a letter to Burlington Northern Santa Fe requesting that it provide a safer crossing at Rio Arriba Road and that they also test safety equipment at all crossings in Las Vegas and on roads to city facilities outside the city limits.