California rail lines utilize CCTV systems

Cameras help authorities determine how and why people die on the tracks


More and more digital eyes peering from trains are helping railroads, police and coroners find out why and how people die on the tracks.

Railroads and commuter lines are busily equipping locomotives with cameras and microphones that can't stop accidents but can eliminate guesswork in determining why they happened, along with relieving the companies of liability.

The camera's steady gaze documents collisions with cars and pedestrians, tracks the movements of vandals and catches damaged fences or signals.

In one recent case, a video led the Riverside County coroner's office to determine that the June 29 death of a 16-year-old Riverside girl was a suicide. The death had perplexed her family.

Now, more than ever, authorities can answer the question: Was the death intentional?

Suicides account for an estimated 23 percent of the 500 deaths a year among trespassers on the tracks, said Steve Kulm, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.

Four railways - Union Pacific, BNSF, Amtrak and Metrolink - serve the Inland area, and Riverside and San Bernardino counties each have about four to six such rail-related deaths a year. The federal agency's statistics do not distinguish between suicides and accidents.

It's up to a medical examiner or coroner to make that ruling.

ELIMINATING THE MYSTERY

"The video can be a very valuable tool, along with the other evidence," said Lt. Cynthia Mayman of the Riverside County coroner's office. "It depends on the quality, the train's lighting and the time of day."

The availability of these videos in the past two years has helped the coroner's office solve mysteries much quicker and more accurately, Mayman said.

"They absolutely give us a visual picture of what happened," said Investigator Jerry Franchville of the Riverside County Sheriff's Department.

In the death of the Riverside teen, Mayman said a video supplied by Union Pacific conclusively showed that she set her iPod beside the tracks before she stepped in front of the oncoming train with her arms crossed.

The videos end conjecture and can give closure to the families, Mayman said. "But a suicide can often be difficult for families to accept. We don't take this lightly," she added.

Families react with anger, shock, disbelief and pain, especially after receiving confusing and contradictory information, she said.

Another Union Pacific video ultimately replaced speculation in the circumstances that led to the deaths of two young San Bernardino women Nov. 1. They died after the driver's SUV became wedged between train tracks and a concrete retaining wall in Riverside. A northbound 86-car train struck the vehicle, dragged the wreckage and crushed the best friends.

The families and authorities presumed that the two women had tried to run, but the video revealed they had stayed with the trapped SUV. Footage showed the passenger standing beside the passenger door of the SUV, "hands lifted to her chest," and her friend exiting the driver side seconds before the collision, the report said.

Zina Sayegh, who watched the video, said she's glad she knows exactly what happened. Her sister Tanya Sayegh, 20, died in the crash.

But the images of her sister's last moments haunt her.

"It was very painful," said Sayegh, 18, of San Bernardino. "After I saw it, I wish I'd never watched it

"I heard the impact. It was terrible."

To prevent exploitation of the sensitive footage on YouTube and other file-sharing Web sites, access is granted to only a handful of officials - the railway's police and attorneys, the families of the deceased and local law enforcement, coroners or medical examiners.

PROP. 1B FUNDS

In the past five years, the camera trend has clicked with freight, passenger and commuter lines.

The commuter lines have requested money for the devices from a $20 billion transportation bond package funded through Homeland Security that California voters approved as Prop. 1B in 2006.

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