As the westbound train barreling through Mesa bore down on his compact car, Kelly Richardson had seconds to react. And he froze.
The 48-year-old Phoenix man ran out of time. He wouldn’t be able to escape.
“God knows what happened after that,” Richardson said. “I just, I saw the train coming.”
As the East Valley continues to grow north, east and west, the two modes of transportation — passenger vehicles and trains — continue to butt heads with increased frequency. Railroad tracks that used to be in the middle of nowhere are now in the middle of bustling intersections.
The rapid growth that extends as far south as Casa Grande has led to calls for added rail safety in a year when deaths in vehicle versus train crashes across the state have increased to five.
Motorists such as Richardson ask what the train industry can do to prevent vehicle fatalities and injuries.
ONE OF THE LUCKY ONES
From Richardson’s car on June 30, the sound of metal grinding on metal could be heard as the Union Pacific engine hauling 40 rail cars rolled down the tracks. The steel beast struck the passenger side of his Dodge Neon on that afternoon at Alma School Road north of Broadway Road.
Richardson said he never saw the red warning lights at the crossing. He said he didn’t know a train was coming until he spotted the crossing arms dropping. It was then that he slammed on his brakes and came to a stop under the gate.
The train smashed the passenger side of his vehicle, pushing it across the street.
But Richardson would be one of the lucky ones. He was treated at a hospital and released.
The advertising sales representative is among thousands of motorists who travel Valley roads daily, crossing train tracks that have been in place for decades — in many areas preceding urbanization.
Railroad companies and their supporters, such as Operation Lifesaver, are keenly aware that their railroad tracks preceded the rapid development that has pushed through the East Valley and into Pinal County. They say it is the drivers who must be educated about road crossings, referred to as atgrade crossings.
A solution is needed not only in the Valley but statewide, as Union Pacific is planning to double its track that runs across southern Arizona.
A further concern for rail safety comes with light rail, expected to bring 180 more crossings to Phoenix, Mesa and Tempe — adding to the state’s 1,567 railroad crossings — when it begins operating in December 2008.
On the morning of Sept. 13, the Arizona branch of Operation Lifesaver worked with Valley police to crack down on drivers violating railroad crossing laws.
Union Pacific engineer Mike Leppak, stationed behind a series of dashboard levers and gauges, propelled the machine forward beginning in Mesa.
From the elevated view of the engine’s cab, pedestrians could be seen walking along the tracks.
Most rush-hour drivers are obedient and stop for the train. However, there are the stray violators who drive around the descending gates or past the flashing red warning lights.
Throughout the day, police handed out 27 citations in Tempe, Mesa, Gilbert and Queen Creek, said Doug Farler, southern Arizona coordinator for Operation Lifesaver. On any other day the drivers would likely have gone unnoticed, Farler said.
Before the sport utility vehicles, the malls, the Starbucks, the Circle Ks, the concrete jungle that has become the Valley, there were railroads. They date back to the late 1800s — here before many towns.
Rail lines that run from Phoenix to downtown Tempe and south into Chandler have been in place since 1887, said Jon Waide, president of the board of directors for Operation Lifesaver in Arizona. A line that runs from Tempe to Queen Creek to Picacho has been here since 1926.
The urban and suburban growth came in phases with a post-World War II boom.
As Phoenix expanded in the early 1950s, so did Tempe, Mesa and Scottsdale, said Grady Gammage Jr., senior research fellow at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University.
In the 1960s and 1970s, communities such as Gilbert, Chandler, Peoria and Glendale bloomed, said Gammage, author of “Phoenix in Perspective: Reflections on Developing the Desert.”
The 1980s saw people moving to Queen Creek, Avondale, Goodyear and Buckeye. Now, residents are pouring into Maricopa, Casa Grande, Eloy and Coolidge, continuing a pattern that takes them farther from the heart of Phoenix into areas that were once desert.
The growth has been based on the notion that people can work in one place, live in another and get there by automobile, Gammage said.
With the growth comes change to traffic patterns that furthers the need for railcrossing warning devices such as crossing arms and warning signals, according to the Federal Railroad Administration — an agency that keeps a database of traffic counts, railroad warning devices, train numbers and speeds for a national crossing inventory that government officials can review when determining whether an area needs more funding for signals.
“Literally, the construction of a new housing subdivision, shopping mall, school, you name it could profoundly change those counts,” administration spokesman Warren Flatau said.
LIVING WITH TRAINS
The massive number of daily commuters who cross railroad tracks has some municipalities looking for solutions to prevent traffic from being stalled by or even colliding with trains.
The once sleepy Rittenhouse Road is now so busy that Queen Creek is building an underpass on Ellsworth Road to allow traffic to directly reach Rittenhouse instead of being stalled at an at-grade crossing.
“The primary reason was there’s just no way that our town center, with those tracks so close to our town center, that the town center could adequately function if a train went through and blocked an at-grade crossing,” said Dick Schaner, Queen Creek special transportation projects manager.
The construction in Queen Creek is part of a multimillion-dollar project expected to begin in October. The $17.16 million needed to construct the underpass and move the rail line comes half from the town and half from landowners, Schaner said. Of that figure, $1.8 million is money Union Pacific charges for permit fees and work done by its crews, he said.
Arizona Corporation Commission member Kris Mayes said the rail industries, the developers, and the communities need to share the responsibility in constructing underpasses and overpasses, which she said are vital as the area grows outward and Union Pacific is on the verge of doubling a line of track south of Phoenix.
Union Pacific, which owns 691 miles of Arizona track, could provide a small amount of funding — equivalent to about 1 or 2 percent of the project for underpasses and overpasses — Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said.
Davis said underpasses and overpasses benefit vehicle traffic; therefore, the railroad would only provide funding that would otherwise be used for maintenance of at-grade crossings.
The second line of Union Pacific track is needed to handle the demand for capacity growth and will run alongside the 760-mile Sunset Route from Los Angeles to El Paso, Texas, Davis said.
The project which began in January 2003 is 49 percent complete, Davis said. In 2006, the main concentration of work has been in New Mexico. The timeline for Arizona, where the rail line could double track in Maricopa and Casa Grande, is still unclear. Davis said the plans are constantly being evaluated.
“Right now, it’s near congestion and traffic is only expected to increase so the investments we’re putting into this, naturally, as you can imagine, are substantial,” Davis said. “We’re looking at — this is literally a multiyear plan.”
Davis said Valley motorists shouldn’t feel an impact from the project, but acknowledged that there is much that is unknown.
ACC member Bill Mundell said if the economy stays where it is, the new track could increase train traffic from about 50 trains per day to 70 trains within three years.
In the city of Maricopa, traffic traveling on state Route 347 north of Honeycutt Road near the Union Pacific line could double, bringing 40,000 vehicles to the road by 2020, according to a Maricopa feasibility study.
Currently, there is an atgrade crossing at the railroad site; however, a study expected to be complete by December could tell whether the city needs to look at alternatives such as constructing an underpass or overpass, Maricopa transportation manager Brent Billingsley said.
After that, Billingsley said, they’ll have to figure out how to pay for it all.