(Riverbank, California – October 5, 2012)
It has been five years since 23-year-old motorist Maricruz Corral and the five passengers in her 2001 Geo Tracker SUV all died in a horrible collision with an Amtrak passenger train traveling at 78 mph at the crossing of Claribel Road and Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks in Riverbank, CA. Yet, it will take another two years for the problem that precipitated the tragedy to get fixed, even though the money was made available this week by the California Dept. of Transportation.
Even though the BNSF/Claribel Road crossing is equipped with lights, bells and gates, the problem is a four-way stop at the adjacent intersection of Claribel and Terminal Avenue in the Stanislaus County community. Cars continually line up across the railroad crossing as they await their turns at the passive four-way stop just beyond the crossing.
Corral had stopped with the front of her vehicle fouling the BNSF tracks as she progressed toward the four-way stop. But when an Amtrak train came bearing down upon her vehicle, she first tried to back up but was prevented by traffic stopped behind her, and then panicked, attempting to clear the crossing by driving forward. The train struck the SUV, killing all on board.
The families of the victims sued Amtrak and Stanislaus County in Federal Court, winning a settlement against all parties. The county paid a total of $1.15 million to the plaintiffs in January, 2011, while the amount Amtrak paid is protected, unless the Modesto Bee can file a successful federal Freedom of Information Act request for release of the exact figure of the payout. Regardless, the amount that the new traffic signals, which will replace the signs and will be coordinated with the railroad signals so as not to trap motorists on the tracks, will be $1.1 million. Remember the old “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” saying?
Figures for 2007 – the year the tragedy occurred – state that 11,500 vehicles cross the Maribel Road crossing daily, while another 4,500 vehicles travel on the intersecting Terminal Avenue. Meanwhile, an average of 46 trains, which include a dozen Amtrak trains, cross there daily at a top speed of 79mph. But it will still take until August, 2014 to complete the project due to the necessity of obtaining a permit from the California Public Utilities Commission and the long lead time required by BNSF to design the circuitry for the interconnection of the railroad and highway signals.