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.
Metrolink, the regional rail service, will retrofit its fleet of 38 locomotives with cameras, which cost $10,000 apiece, said Los Angeles-based spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell. Since April, three of the 15 new camera-equipped cabs on order have arrived.
Typically, in a rail tragedy, witnesses will swear by different stories.
"These accounts are unreliable," Tyrrell said. "We're looking for precise information, not to see whom we can blame. Safety is a huge thing for us, embedded in the DNA of Metrolink, but there's nothing we can do about suicides."
Amtrak, whose Southwest Chief and Sunset Limited lines pass through the Inland area, just began adding cameras. In the next 18 months, it hopes to install them in all of 358 of its locomotives, Chicago-based spokesman Marc Magliari said.
After General Electric Co. created its first camera prototype in November 2002, BNSF was one of two railways to roll out the new tools in a pilot program five years ago.
As companies perfected the technology and made it accessible and affordable, more railroads were eager to get it on board. By year's end, two-thirds of BNSF's freight locomotives and all of Union Pacific's will be fully equipped, representatives of the rail companies say.
"When we see the footage, we learn what the victim did and what the train crew did," said Patrick Hiatte, a Fort Worth, Texas-based spokesman for BNSF Railway.
Small and unobtrusive, the cameras are inside the cab, located behind the right side of the windshield to prevent blocking the crew's view. The recorder's fixed gaze is 100 feet straight ahead. Placed outside is a microphone to record the bell and horn, which can prove that the engineer tried to warn a trespasser or motorist crossing the tracks.
"The bulk of our videos are in color, and you can see things clearly, absolutely," BNSF's Hiatte said.
What's more, they're admissible in court.
Federal regulations do not mandate the use of locomotive-mounted cameras. Some videotape in 72-hour loops and record only when the train is operating. The crew can't turn off the recorders, and investigators download the contents only when there's an incident.
The digital devices aren't used to nab track trespassers or drivers who circumvent the gates. Hiatte said rail companies lack the authority to prosecute such violations, but they do share information with law enforcement if it is requested.
The Association of American Railroads, a trade group, does not track lawsuits, said Washington, D.C-based Tom White.
But the Federal Railroad Administration's Kulm said the 27,000 vehicle-train collisions a year certainly would provide grist for potential litigation.
Union Pacific spokeswoman Zoe Richmond estimates that of the 35 or 40 lawsuits a year filed against her company in Southern California, perhaps one goes to trial. Most are settled out of court.
When the family and attorneys review the video and see that a death was intentional, "they can't really fight it out in court," Richmond said. "It's not our word against the family's word. Everything is right there on videotape."
Reach Laurie Lucas at 951-368-9569 or llucas@PE.com
* * *
NATIONWIDE IN 2007, 95 percent of all rail-related fatalities involved collisions at grade crossings or trespassers along rail lines.
338 PEOPLE died at grade crossings in 2007, and 473 trespasser deaths were recorded.
THE AVERAGE TRESPASSER is a 38-year-old Caucasian male under the influence of alcohol or drugs who has a median household income of $36,000.
Source: Federal Railroad Administration