Many students cross railroad tracks daily to get to school; some look both ways before they cross, while others listen to music and don’t look at all. Yet no matter how they cross, they could be fined up to $2,000.
Crossing railroad tracks in non-designated areas is considered trespassing and could result in a warning, fines or arrest. Student housing located across the tracks from Cal Poly makes illegal crossings popular because it is faster and in some cases easier.
English junior Natalie Maris said she crosses the tracks frequently to get to school from her house.
“Going around can add 10 minutes or more, so it is worth it to cross, but now that I know about tickets, I’m not so sure,” Maris said.
Designated areas to cross are built for pedestrians or at roadway crossings where there are gates. As long as the person is not crossing when the gates are down and the lights are flashing, it is legal to cross tracks. The other way to cross is the Mustang Village crossway that was built just last year near the Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
According to the Federal Railroad Administration Statistics for 2009, California had the highest trespassing fatalites out of all the states, with 59 fatal accidents due to crossing tracks illegally.
Trespassing is getting in the right-of-way of a train, meaning any part of railroad property, said Aaron Hunt, director of Corporate Relations & Media for Union Pacific Railroads. Union Pacific Railroads is the top operator of railroad tracks for North America and is in charge of the tracks in San Luis Obispo.
“Trespassing on railroad property could be standing on the gravel next to the tracks,” Hunt said.
Railroad property or railroad right-of-way depends on where the tracks are, but according to Operation Lifesaver.org, an organization to help educate about railroads, train overhang is at least three feet from the tracks and potential loose straps could add to the overhang.
“We are trying to convince people that railroad right-of-way is a dangerous place. We’re not doing this maliciously,” Hunt said.
Safety is the main reason for giving out tickets and warnings. Since crossing the tracks illegally is a federal offense, Hunt said seeing people continuously cross the tracks warrants tickets, but warnings are sometimes just as effective.
“We work hard to inform and educate as much as possible,” Hunt said. “For one out of 10 encounters, we give out a ticket. We will go the extra mile to educate. People don’t want to pay a fine.”
To deter people from crossing tracks and possibly risking a ticket, the railroad tracks along Cal Poly have clear signs giving warning about trespassing, but the fact that a person can be fined up to $2,000 is not made clear on the signs. Many students are aware that crossing the tracks is illegal, but almost no one knew the fine could be so large.
Psychology senior Tiffany Hulse said she knew it was trespassing, but she was unaware of the fine.
“I didn’t know it could be that much; that is a whole quarter’s tuition,” she said. “I see a lot of people that cross them not looking, so I can see why they have fines. It comes down to responsibility, and a lot of people don’t take responsibility for themselves.”
According to University Police Department safety and education go hand in hand. University police officer Ray Easter said fences are being put up around the tracks to deter students from crossing, because it comes down to the safety of the students.
“We don’t give out citations very often. The ones that do get tickets are walking in between or parallel to the tracks. It’s all about safety,” Easter said. “If a student is very intoxicated, what happens when they fall?”