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In an effort to reduce railroad-related traffic collisions, local police and Union Pacific Railroad officials snare drivers attempting to beat crossing arms in Oxnard.
ANTHONY PLASCENCIA/THE STAR

As a train approached Rose Avenue in Oxnard just after 7 a.m. Wednesday, red lights attached to the crossing arms began to flash.

This should be a familiar sight to many motorists in Ventura County, where freight and passenger trains run through major thoroughfares daily.

Drivers are supposed to stop once they see the lights flash, not when the arms start coming down, said Will Brown, a Union Pacific train conductor.

“Some people try to beat them,” he said.

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As if on cue, multiple vehicles blew through the flashing red lights, in front of the oncoming train. A set of Oxnard police officers on motorcycles flashed their lights and began to follow the vehicles to cite the drivers for railroad crossing violations.

These citations would end up being the first of 24 traffic citations, one traffic warning, nine trespassing citations and two trespassing warnings during an operation to raise awareness about driving laws and dangers at rail crossings, according to preliminary numbers from Jorge Villaescusa, an officer for the Union Pacific Railroad Police Department.

State of the rails

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California experiences the nation’s second-highest level of crashes at “grade crossing” intersections of railroads and roadways. The state also leads the nation in the number of railroad “trespass” deaths, Villaescusa said.

Trespass, the illegal travel on private railroad property, is the leading cause of railroad deaths in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

In 2016 alone, 101 people died due to railroad trespass in California alone, according to data from the Federal Railroad Commission.

“We don’t stop suddenly,” said Union Pacific train engineer Paul Fancett, referring to the distance needed to stop a train traveling at 55 mph. According to Operation Lifesaver, a railroad safety education effort, a moving train can require a mile or more to come to a stop.

Villaescusa, a 13-year Union Pacific police veteran, oversees enforcement operations like Wednesday’s on a regular basis, including ones recently in Pomona, North Hollywood, Riverside and City of Industry.

The operations consist of two major components: a train and law enforcement officers. The train travels a short stretch of railroad, back and forth, activating crossing signals at grade crossings along its route. Officers position themselves near these grade crossings and cite violators and trespassers as needed.

Enforcement plan

Oxnard’s operation began early Wednesday at the Union Pacific…