Trains along the popular Capitol Corridor are running later than before, and homeless camps are partly to blame.
Rail officials say more people have trespassed on train tracks in the last year, forcing engineers at times to hit the brakes to avoid a possible crash – and at times tragically unable to. That’s left trains loaded with commuters or freight grinding to a halt in the middle of nowhere.
Capitol Corridor board chair Lucas Frerichs said the issue is foremost about human safety. But, it’s also a business problem.
“Frankly, we have a business to run, a service to the public. If people can’t depend on the train being on time, they will choose other options,” he said.
His train system, which connects the capital city and Silicon Valley, has seen its on-time record dip dramatically in the last year. Fifteen percent of trains were late arriving to their destination stations last month.
The reasons aren’t limited to trespassing. Agency officials say the rail line's problems with track signals, bridge closures and mechanical issues have been higher than usual. The number of vehicle strikes at street crossings has tilted up as well.
Trespassers, though, represent an unnerving wild card, rail officials say.
Train engineers frequently see people walking along rail lines in Sacramento and the Bay Area, Capitol Corridor head David Kutrosky said.
“It’s unfortunately becoming more common,” Kutrosky said.
That’s prompted several rail agencies locally to launch crackdowns, including a joint effort starting this month between the Capitol Corridor and Union Pacific freight rail company, which owns the tracks used by many passenger services in California.
The problem has become significant enough that Kutrosky sent an email last week to passengers asking them to report any encampments or large piles of trash they notice along the tracks while on their train ride.
He said he and his crews have seen camps in secluded and wooded areas recently in Sacramento, West Sacramento and Davis in the capital region, and Suisun City, Hercules, Berkeley, Oakland and Fremont in the Bay Area.
Capitol Corridor officials did not provide crash numbers requested by The Bee, as of Friday. But a spokesman for the Union Pacific said three people were hit by trains between Sacramento and the Bay Area.
If a person is killed by a train, it may be held in place for two to three hours as coroners, police and track inspectors do post-mortem work, officials said. That creates a domino effect, slowing passenger and freight trains from Sacramento to San Jose.
But near misses are a problem as well, Kutrosky said. If a person is on the tracks or it appears like they may step onto the rails, “an engineer will turn all the brakes at once and go into emergency braking applications.” Once a train stops, he said, “it takes 10 minutes to reset the engine,” he said.
Other rail agencies around Sacramento report similar issues, as homeless numbers in the capital region and elsewhere rise.
A count last July in Sacramento County found 3,665 people living without permanent shelter, a 30 percent increase from the number counted in 2015.
Union Pacific spokesman Justin Jacobs said homeless camps are not a new issue, but the problem is getting more attention. “It has become a more highlighted issue throughout the state. Sacramento and San Jose, those are the key spots here.”
A spokeswoman for Sacramento Regional Transit, which operates light-rail trains, said her agency is spending more time and resources in the last few years patrolling its tracks and closing down homeless encampments.
That included breaking up a large camp near tracks a few weeks ago at Arcade Creek and Roseville Road in the North Sacramento area where the creek passes under the Union Pacific, Amtrak and Sacramento Regional Transit rail lines.
The problem, though, is not easily resolved.
A Sacramento Bee reporter and photographer on Thursday found nine makeshift tents in three camps – some protected by barking pit bulls – in that same Arcade Creek area.
Among those living there is 62-year-old Joe Stenman, homeless for 20 years, who says he was rousted a few weeks ago. He simply moved to a more hidden spot in a deep creekside gully between the light rail and UP tracks.
He prefers the quiet and relative safety of living in a wooded rail corridor than on the streets downtown or out on the river.
“It's kind of out in the boonies,” he said. “You don’t bother nobody, noboby’s bothering you, you know.”
He dismisses the idea that trespassers are causing a problem for the railroads.
“Some people walk along the side of the tracks,” he said. “But people don't mess with the trains. Most people are smart enough to tell if there is a training coming, or not, you know.”
Homeless advocates say railroad corridors, as well as bushy areas near freeways and under bridges, have long been attractive places to camp because they are not private property, they offer some seclusion and are near urban services, such as food banks or stores.
The effort to combat trespassers comes as passenger train ridership is increasing. In an effort to keep those riders on board, the agency announced last week a list of steps it will take this spring and summer to improve on-time performance.
That includes a partnership with the Union Pacific to reduce trespassing on the UP right-of-way, which is shared in many areas by freight and passenger trains.
The Capitol Corridor will provide $750,000 per year to finance three UP crews, starting this month, tasked with finding and closing down homeless camps along rail lines. The crews also will build and repair fences to keep people out, and clear vegetation and debris near tracks.
Board chair Frerichs said he and a few other Capitol Corridor board members will begin meeting with elected officials and social service providers in cities along the rail line to talk about coordinating efforts so that the homeless are handled in a humane way.
That effort will face scrutiny from advocates for the homeless.
Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, said UP police need to avoid citing and arresting people they find living on the rail lines, and should work with social service outreach workers who can offer alternative housing and services.
One of those service providers, Ryan Loofbourrow, chief executive of Sacramento Steps Forward, said he plans to contact Capitol Corridor officials to offer his agency’s services.
“It would be great to partner with them,” Loofbourrow said. “Working with individuals takes time and patience. Downtown, I found when I have an outreach worker working alongside maintenance crews and security in the area, we get much better outcomes, rather than moving them from one spot to another.”
Out by Arcade Creek last week, Stenman sat barefoot under his tarp and shook his head. He isn’t interested in going to a shelter. And he doesn’t like it when police come around.
The last time they rousted him, he had to leave his bike behind because they didn’t give him enough time to move. He found a new hideaway in a gully only a 10-minute walk to a neighborhood store where he can buy food.
To get to the store, he crosses light-rail tracks in a wooded area next to a sign saying “Private RR Crossing. No Trespassing.”