The way it goes is, say you want to drive from south El Sereno, where you live, to north El Sereno, where the post office is. There’s a fair chance you’ll spend a good deal of time sitting in your car, counting the boxcars from faraway lines like the Wabash, the Rock Island and the Erie-Lackawanna, as the milelong freight slows and stops at the grade crossing. While the post office closes down for the day.
This isn’t the only Eastside intersection where tie-ups happen. The old Southern Pacific tracks parallel Valley most of the way downtown, so a stalled freight can literally isolate the thousands of El Sereno residents living on cross streets such as Soto and Boca, south and north of the boulevard. The situation got so bad that even the Los Angeles Timesnoted it. But, particularly since the S.P.’s misbegotten $5 billion, 1996 merger into the Union Pacific, the traffic jams kept getting worse — sometimes literally lasting for hours. Until someone finally took official notice.
One thing I’ve noted about the LAPD over the years is that its officers generally can’t stand to watch anyone blocking traffic. According to city-attorney spokesman Mike Qualls, one such officer last year finally climbed up into the locomotive cab of a halted U.P. freight that had been blocking traffic for four hours and ordered the crew either to move or "break the train." The crew declined to do either. On three further occasions the U.P. crews also refused to move trains blocking traffic, citing various red track signals and Metro Rail passenger-service priorities. The U.P. was admonished, but nothing really happened until Deputy City Attorney Lynn Megnandonovan unearthed a state Public Utilities Commission law that forbids trains blocking level crossings for more than 10 minutes.
Which is why the nation’s largest railroad — with more than 50,000 employees and 30,000 miles of track — in October ended up paying the city a $10,000 fine for obstructing traffic. City Attorney Jim Hahn promptly donated the money to Father Gregory Boyle’s nonprofit Eastside Homeboy Industries, which prepares "at risk" young people for productive trades. This made for a great little media event, and perhaps even helped U.P. management notice its operating division’s errant ways. We can only hope.
But if the problem continues, Hahn might consider moving his action to the federal jurisdiction. According to the U.S. Surface Transportation Bureau’s 290-page 1995 summary agreement (the original was 8,100 pages) authorizing the S.P.-U.P. merger, one key condition was "that the transaction not adversely affect the adequacy of transportation to the public."
Which blocking city street traffic for four hours at a stretch certainly tends to do.