Students cross the Union Pacific Railroad train tracks parallel to California Boulevard going to and from Cal Poly on a daily basis, walking right by signs that state the area is private property, and trespassers are violating the law. According to students, though, seldom do police do anything about it.
On Tuesday morning this changed. Police — in the form of Union Pacific (UP) security officers — appeared to curb the trespassing.
UP controls railroads in 23 states, most of which are in the western two-thirds of the U.S.
Incidents occurring on and surrounding train tracks are not under the jurisdiction of the San Luis Obispo Police Department or Cal Poly’s University Police Department. They are instead manned by special agents employed by the Union Pacific Police Department (UPPD).
San Luis Obispo resident Kenny Vallone said he saw a black police car and SUV parked in the grass next to the railroad tracks by the corner of California Boulevard and Stafford Street between 8:45 and 9 a.m. He said he saw one police officer speaking to someone of college-age in what appeared to be the issuance of a citation.
“The only day I noticed it was today,” Vallone said.
Vallone, a nurse who walks up and down California Boulevard to work at French Hospital daily, said he has seen people brought into the hospital who have been hit by trains while crossing the tracks.
“I’ve seen injured people on the tracks, so I could see why they’re cracking down on it,” Vallone said. “Although, if the crack downs were at nighttime hours, (they would be more useful) because I think that’s when there’d be a problem.”
UP Director of Corporate Relations and Media Aaron Hunt said California, and specifically San Luis Obispo, are hotbeds for railroad trespasser injuries and fatalities.
“California led all 50 states both in 2009 and 2010 in pedestrian trespasser fatalities,” Hunt said. “California had 62 in 2010.”
The last local fatality occurred in July, 2010 when 17-year-old Oscar Gonzalez was hit by train while crossing the tracks south of California and Foothill boulevards while wearing headphones.
Hunt said UP is addressing safety concerns by teaming up railroad police with local law enforcement.
“We consistently in (San Luis Obispo) County do ‘Union Pacific Cares’ operations,” Hunt said. “Those are safety-focused operations where we will stage a train on our tracks and collaborate with local law enforcement and go out and issue warnings and sometimes citations to motorist and pedestrians not in compliance with the law.”
Local judges determine citations fines, which Hunt said usually range from $100 to $200 but could possibly have a ceiling as high as $2,000.
Though federal law stipulates that all railroad property is private property, UP places warning signs in high foot traffic area to remind people not to trespass.
“In the more populated areas, you’ll see (“No Trespassing” signs) every one to three miles,” Hunt said. “Occasionally, they are vandalized or removed.”
Three signs reading “Private Property, No Trespassing” each stand next to the railroad tracks within one mile of the intersection of California Boulevard and Hathway Avenue.
Civil engineering sophomore Lauren Sotir said she thinks most people who cross the railroad tracks are well aware that they are breaking the law.
As Sotir spoke, a student crossed the train tracks walking a bike.