Man Dies Along the Blue Line; Safety Improvements Are Planned for Next Year

The Blue Line passes within inches of the gates at Vernon at a fairly high speed. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

On Friday, September 27th, shortly after 6 p.m., 37 year-old Zenon Vazquez opened the gate and stepped in front of the Blue Line train at Vernon.

It’s hard to understand how that can happen, given how loud the signal bells are, and the fact that you either have to duck under the pedestrian barrier bar (above left) or open one of the gates. The train passes so close, in fact, that even if you were both deaf and blind, you’d probably still be able to feel it coming.

So, it’s not surprising that there are some conflicting accounts of what happened that evening.

Some witnesses say the man was possibly distracted and looking the wrong way. Metro informs me some of their witnesses saw Vazquez and another man walk out of a liquor store toward the station. The companion stopped at the gate, while Vazquez proceeded on through. Whether anyone said anything to try to keep him from doing so is unknown. However, both accounts seem to discourage the notion that the death was a suicide, and one implies intoxication may have been a factor. The coroner says a full report is still pending.

A trip to the Vernon station, however, did offer some clues.

As I stood taking photos of the pedestrian gates, several people walked right through, even as the signals were going off.

It happens all the time, said the older couple that have a vendor stand on the east side of the tracks.

They were still set up on the corner when the incident occurred that Friday, but they hadn’t witnessed it.

Although they felt it was very unfortunate, they were only surprised it didn’t happen more often.

It had happened shortly after the Metro Safety Ambassador had left for the day, they explained. When no one is around to monitor the area, people are much less likely to obey the signals.

The craziest thing, they said, was that people were jumping between the cars of the stopped train (once the man had been struck), determined to get around it to wherever they had to go. Nevermind that they could have tripped and stumbled into the path of a northbound train.

Both of them shook their heads in dismay.

They have no regard for signals, the older gentleman told me in Spanish, proving his point by pointing at a family with young kids crossing the intersection against the light.

It doesn’t make sense, he said. There are more than enough safety devices; people just need to start paying attention to them.

Speaking of safety devices, in my last look at safety along the Blue Line, I discussed Metro’s agreement with Union Pacific that would allow Metro to install additional gates and signage along the UP side of the crossings. UP had balked at the idea until recently, afraid that being asked to upgrade safety measures in one city would mean they would be asked to do the same along the thousands of miles of track they own across the country.

The intersection at Vernon is generally uncomfortable for pedestrians and cyclists, given the narrowness of Vernon, the fact that you must not only cross four tracks, but also Long Beach Ave. (which straddles the tracks) before you can get to the safety of a sidewalk or regular travel lane. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Metro had hoped to have those plans for upgrades ready for bid this past July. As of now, it appears that plans for improvements, including pedestrian gates and swing gates at 27 intersections, won’t be out to bid until next spring. Meaning, construction won’t start until next summer at the earliest and should be completed by February 2016.

And while that is heartening (if slow-paced), none of the improvements would have done much to help in Vazquez’ case.

While there is no question that Vernon intersection itself is a highly uncomfortable crossing for pedestrians or cyclists, Vazquez stepped into the train’s path at the one corner where there are gates, barriers, and very loud signals.

His is the fifth death along the Blue Line this year, three of which have been determined to be suicides.

  • “As I stood taking photos of the pedestrian gates, several people walked right through, even as the signals were going off.”

    How long do the signals sound for? If people become aware that theres danger for 10 seconds, and the signal goes off for 40…its logical to ignore them.

    Same reason people ignore ped signs. If it flashes dont walk for 60 seconds, and you can cross in 30….

  • sahra

    That’s a great point. The bells start going off so they can lower the gates ahead of time, but it seems to be the trigger for people to make one last mad dash. Although, the Blue Line is nowhere near as bad as the Gold Line that goes to Pasadena. You might wait up to three minutes at N. Fig because two trains are
    going to pass through and because the northbound train comes on a curve
    and is hard to see ahead of time. It’s meant as added safety and was lobbied heavily for at the time (if my recollection is correct), but pedestrians constantly ignore those lights.

    My observation in the previous article I wrote on the Blue Line was that the fact that there are 4 sets of tracks gives people a false sense of security. They are sure they are going to see a train coming. Meanwhile so many sets of tracks make me crazy — i’m always afraid I’m looking in the wrong direction. But this Vernon station is weird. A man died there the exact same way last year. He had a hoodie on and headphones and just walked right through the gate, head down. It’s a shame. The rest of the intersection completely sucks and is a mess. But that one entrance has all the right safety features. I don’t know what Metro could do differently. Locking the gates could trap someone on the other side. Although, perhaps they could experiment with a kind of gate that locks on one side only when the train is coming, kind of like the emergency gates they have at station exits.

  • calwatch

    It should be noted that the pedestrian gate arm was shorter than originally designed. According to Metro staff I’ve spoken to, that gate was used as a fulcrum by teenagers and was broken regularly. Also, you have to have enough landing space for a wheelchair under ADA.

    The issue with the UP is their long, slow moving trains, some of which stop or travel slow enough for the physically nimble to hop over. Of course, that puts them in range of a speeding Blue Line train. Given their operational needs there is nothing you can do about that.

  • davistrain

    The cliche’ that comes to mind is probably a bit harsh: “You can’t fix stupid.”

  • NV

    SD trolley has almost none of these literal “Bells and Whistles” and they have a much lower accident rate. If people willfully go around, under, over the gates what can MTA do. It is the persons fault. Its actually very hard to get killed by a train.

  • überfahr

    Yes, that Vernon-Blue Line intersection is terrible and chaotic with lots of different intersecting lanes that are moving different types of objects and people (cars, bikes, peds, light rail). It may be impossible to improve the safety given people’s — many, many people’s willingness to risk limb and life to make the next transportation connection. For those of us who have observed bus stations in LA, it’s not uncommon to witness the young, middle aged, and old race across a very high-speed, high-traffic vehicular crossing because they have a chance of hopping on their bus connection. This was observed in this case, as people were willing to risk their lives between two trains to get out of there, and on their way. This seems true too, by the way, for automobile drivers faced with a risk/choice tradeoff — they too would cross over a track with speeding training coming to avoid waiting 5 minutes. This is a socio-cultural reality and not an infrastructure issue.

  • Anonymous

    Darwin thought being inbred was part of his problem. How are your grandpa/dad and son/brother doing?

  • Anonymous

    Railroad suicide —Poor– suicide—No family —suicide—no witnesses–suicide —real witnesses can be lost —suicide.

    Evidence let go

    1. The train has video of this — a public paid for thing —Where is the video???

    2. The train had a event recorder of brakes,lights, horns, etc…public paid for with humongous overcharges—Where are the event recorder readings???

    3. The crossing signal housing has a event recorder with gate operation —.public paid for with humongous overcharges—Where is the crossing house readings?

    4. The crossing maintainer has a hand held that would show if the automated signals were calling him/her to come fix them. Where is the hand held???

    5. The drug/alcohol tests on the train crew are?

    6. The railroad control center recording is?

  • calwatch

    I’m confused. Does the public need to see someone walking across the railroad tracks like that famous “traingirl” video? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w612s5faYtE The train can’t brake that quickly. Once it accelerates even if you throw the emergency brake it still takes hundreds of feet to stop. This is really stupid.

  • sahra

    Like Calwatch, I’m not exactly sure what you’re asking for. Some of this seems to be more like haiku? And blaming the crew is unfair — it is quite traumatic to run down a pedestrian and there would be no way a train could stop given half a second’s notice… one step through that gate and you’re on the tracks. The pedestrian is going to lose regardless of how good the driver is. (http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-blue-line-suicides-20130924,0,1792452.story) Either way, all signals and other elements were in working order, according to Metro. And, Vazquez does indeed have family and it did not appear to be a suicide, given the multiple witness reports. According to Metro safety ambassadors who have actually saved people from suicide and those that review the video footage, there are certain behaviors people display (pacing back and forth along the tracks or at a station, for ex.) and this guy did nothing particularly unusual…unless he did the pacing and contemplation earlier and witnesses to that were not around when he did finally step in front of the train.

    Odd as it may sound, the same thing happened there last year, where a guy with his head down and headphones on never looked up before walking through the swing gate. Apparently he just never saw it coming. There is a case in Watts where a man rode his bicycle into the train WHILE IT WAS ALREADY CROSSING THROUGH the intersection. Which makes no logical sense, but it still happened. (la.streetsblog.org/2013/03/25/balancing-safety-security-and-saturation-on-the-blue-line-part-i/) With regard to this case, they are still trying to determine whether it was a suicide — they either are reviewing the video or will soon — and have said they’d let me know the outcome. The toxicology report is still pending.

    I’m no fan of that intersection, but it is one of the few along that stretch of the line that does actually have appropriate infrastructure, at least at that one corner. In fact, it is so crowded with signals that the bells are practically going off in your ear.

  • sahra

    *correction: the other gentleman that walked through the gate with his head down at that same station was killed earlier this year, not last year.

  • Anonymous

    If you knew what you were watching —the second train sitting there giving a false clear with the crew picking there noses and scratching their nut sacks should have been flagging. Well that and massive theft of safety funds by the sleeze ball railroads so no signals/gates.

  • Anonymous

    What is the DOT# on the signal house right by these gates? The other one I can read 747836K Is UP —10 mph trains —and no passenger trains. THE GPS location given isn’t even close. Yet the KILLS all have 35 mph trains on the accident reports. FRA doesn’t have all kinds of red flags on these kind of reports.

    You have 4 tracks (inventory only shows two)— hundreds of people— missing pedestrian guards on all four corners and the picture is a rinky dink swing gate without a operator.

    5 0.120708 747836K UP CA LOS ANGELES LOS ANGELES VERNON AVE 0 0 0 1 1 GT 25 2 10 YES 4 10,000

    AADT Year: 1988 —The state dot in charge of traffic counts have been sleeping where for 25 years?

  • Anonymous

    So Jeffrey Dohmer didn’t do his own investigations like the killer railroad does because? I betcha he would have found squirrels in the fridge.

    Get the picture —They don’t lie they are fired or COMMITTING TRAIN kamakazee themselves.

  • Anonymous

    Looking at the pathetic Federal records for these crossings —they are all wrong—with two tracks left off—ALL the passenger trains left out—10 mph trains only —traffic counts 25 years old —NO SCAX listings —
    48th Pl. —the next crossing has wig-wags (old junk signals) when the Google guy shows gates. Combined this blood alley would be the bloodiest in the country.

    NO crossing killings this year showing so the other one was hid under trespasser when it was at a pedestrian crossing.