Short-term solutions could reduce wait times at crossings, but transportation officials are cautiously optimistic

By Brian Park

The Orange County Transportation Authority is trying to exorcise San Juan Capistrano’s “ghost train” problem, but a permanent solution is still several months away.

In a presentation to the City Council on Tuesday, Jennifer Bergener, OCTA’s director of rail and facilities, said additional monitoring and adjustments over the next 90 days at the problematic Del Obispo Street railroad crossing could reduce motorists’ wait time to 45 to 60 seconds.

The problem arose after OCTA completed a countywide $85 million project to bring safety enhancements to 52 crossings in eight cities, including San Juan Capistrano, in 2011. City officials and residents, however, began experiencing long waits at the Del Obispo Street crossing, when arms went down and no trains passed. The issue often occurs when trains stop at the train station to the north, triggering the crossing arms.

Among the solutions that could take place within the next three months, Bergener said refinements to the communication system between the signals at the crossing and the train station could reduce times. However, Bergener was cautiously optimistic that the problem could be eliminated completely.

“We’re hopeful with a combination of these things we’ll be able to eliminate it entirely, but I’m not comfortable committing to that,” Bergener said.

In August 2012, OCTA officials presented several solutions to the council to fix the issue, but several roadblocks, including Metrolink’s financial woes, delayed any work.

Councilmembers expressed displeasure at the slow process.

“This has been going on for three years now, and we’re in no better shape than we were three years ago,” Mayor Pro Tem Larry Kramer said. “Very disappointing.”

Councilman John Taylor, who lives in the nearby Los Rios Historic District, noted that he often drives through the crossing and said “there have been a lot of problems lately.”

“I was there one night and it was maybe 10 minutes we were stuck with the arms down and there were no trains, nothing,” Taylor said.

Bergener said equipment failures caused unusually long delays during the late summer and early fall. The defective equipment was replaced, but the ghost trains still exist.

A long-term fix to implement positive train control, a safety system that is activated in case of human error, could eliminate the problem, but that solution, at a minimum, is 24 months away and $2 million short, Bergener said.

“That’s very discouraging,” Councilman Roy Byrnes said.

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