This is a reposting of Enterprise op-eds and letters on the topic of the Olive Drive Railroad Fence.

Olive Drive residents deserve safe passage

By Alan C. Miller | Special to The Enterprise | November 27, 2010

For more than a century, the Olive Drive community has been part of Central Davis by virtue of easy pedestrian access over the railroad tracks. At any given moment, one can stand on the east end of the station platform and view a nearly constant flow of pedestrians across the tracks at several access points.

As a child visiting my sister at college in the early 1970s, I remember watching hippies pass through the mysterious hole in the fence across from the train station. The railroad welded some rails in front of the hole years later. A new hole 'formed' in the fence at the end of this barrier and the flow continued.

Olive Drive's history as part of Central Davis, however, is about to end.

A Nov. 4 article in The Davis Enterprise alerted residents that a fence would be erected along the tracks. Here are the details: The fence will be 'impenetrable' steelreinforced wrought-iron; 3,800 feet long and 8 feet high; cost $250,000 in materials; begin at Richards Boulevard and end nearly three-quarters of a mile east at the Olive Drive offramp just a few hundred feet short of Sudwerk; and have no access points.

The Olive Drive community will quite literally be walled in.

Deaths have occurred along the tracks at random intervals and locations at a rate of about one every year or two for the past few decades, yet not even a simple fence has been erected to block access at L Street or Hickory Lane as a token. That is, not until a quarter-million dollars in public transportation bond funds became available.

Of the dozen person-vs.-train accidents in Davis proper over the past couple of decades, fewer than half were adjacent to the proposed fence, and only one or two might have been prevented by this fence. Most have been suicides, very intoxicated people, vehicle incidents, crimes or other random events. None that I can recall were happy sober persons crossing the tracks, who, like the proverbial chicken, simply wanted 'to get to the other side.'

The fence attempts to address the symptom (people crossing the tracks), but not the problem (no convenient, safe way for Olive Drive residents to reach downtown). History has shown that one cannot simply wall in a community that has been part of another community. There is something unseemly about walling in the area of town with the lowest income, lowest rate of car ownership and highest percentage of minorities with what amounts to a border fence. The sheer number of crossings may be curtailed, but even more risky behavior to circumvent the fence will be the result.

Pedestrians and bicyclists will move to cross beyond the limits of the fence. On the east end, some children heading to schools in East Davis will find the end of the fence and cross near Sudwerk, passing in front of the dangerous freeway offramp to Olive Drive, then crossing the railroad at a point where there are four tracks, trains are accelerating, and parked railroad cars and switching operations pose additional hazards.

On the west end, there is legal passage, but safety remains a concern. Taylor Jaco Pope, an Olive Drive homeowner and father of two young children, is concerned about his children's safety when the fence is erected.

'Now we have easy access to downtown through a coded gate,' he says. 'My children know about trains and to stay out of the way. With this fence, we will be forced to pass through the very busy intersection at Olive and Richards. We've seen two accidents there in the last month. What we'd really like to see is a safe and legal way for our family to get downtown.'

There are two needed crossings, one into downtown and one into East Davis. A ramp from the east end of Olive Drive to the Pole Line Road overpass would offer safer access to East Davis and additionally would offer safer access to South Davis. As the bridge is already built, the minimal amount of additional infrastructure can be completed at a relatively low cost.

Downtown, a pedestrian/ bicycle bridge from Hickory Lane into the Amtrak station can be constructed using city-owned land, but the structure itself will cost a couple of million dollars.

A quarter-million dollars is a good down payment on that bridge. The city should request that part of the available public safety funds go toward these legal crossings to give the residents the option of safe passage. By cobbling together local funding sources, money from the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, and with assistance from state and federal representatives, these long-needed crossings can be built.

Olive Drive residents will no longer have to play chicken to cross the railroad, just 'to get to the other side.'

For more information, see the Facebook page for the Olive Drive Preservation Society.

Think safety and protect the trees

To the Editor:

The recent proposal by the Union Pacific RR and the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority to build 3,800 feet of steel fence between the Olive Drive community and Davis north of the tracks, while well-intentioned, does not, we believe, improve safety along the tracks. Rather, it pushes the problem of illegal crossings to the periphery, and in addition, has a number of unintended negative consequences.

One negative consequence of the fence-building will be the destruction of a number of full-growth trees along the stretch of track where the fence will be built. Those of us who commute by rail from Davis or live in the neighborhood know there is an almost continuous line of trees from the city-owned land behind Design House to the Olive Drive offramp from Interstate 80 (where, if you slow for a moment, you can see a coast redwood in the middle of the turnaround).

These trees include many native and mature oaks and other species, including one large palm tree across from the rail depot.

These trees provide significant benefits to the Olive Drive and Old East Davis neighborhoods. They provide a pleasant view for citizens living in proximity to the tracks. For residents on the north side of the tracks (I, J and K streets), they dampen the sound of the nearby freeway - a constant buzz that can be heard throughout Davis, but particularly in the downtown area. And for those in the Olive Drive community they provide shade, and finally, they provide habitat for hundreds of animals.

A solution to illegal track crossings is needed for the safety of our community. It is our view that merely building a fence will not provide this safety, does not adequately address the issue of illegal and dangerous track crossings, does nothing to address the need for a safe and convenient means of track crossing, and will do irreparable harm to the urban landscape in this part of town.

We urge the city of Davis to work jointly with the Capital Corridor Joint Powers Authority, the Union Pacific Railroad and other stakeholders to design a comprehensive safety solution that provides a safe means for track crossing while preserving the existing trees and their multiple benefits to the neighborhood.

Robert Canning and Tia Will November 30, 2010


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2010-11-30 23:09:09   Two pedestrian bridges would probably be overkill for such a small neighborhood, especially since Olive Drive is already served by the Richards Blvd Underpass. A more viable option might be a gated pedestrian crossing. It would be much less expensive, have a much smaller foot print, and still provide safe passage to downtown. —jefftolentino

2010-12-01 00:00:59   Not trying to play devil's advocate here (I will show for the protest), but realistically the city has no control over this issue and the railroad will view the cost of saving an extra five minutes of walking time as a tremendous waste of time, money and resources as far as building a walking bridge is concerned. —Wes-P

2010-12-01 03:56:58   I agree with Jeff and Wes, another crossing at Richards seems like somewhat of a waste, so the Pole Line connection makes a little more sense to do first. Both projects are mentioned here, with the Richards project estimated at $3,800,000 and the Pole Line project at $2,800,000. There is also more information about various bike public works projects in the Initial Draft Comprehensive Bicycle Plan (is there a final one?) —NickSchmalenberger

2010-12-01 07:39:05   Having lived there, there is a distinct feel that you are right in Central Davis because of the direct walking proximity to everything by heading over the tracks. I question how they are going to keep the fence up — people are pretty good at poking holes in unpopular walls. —JabberWokky

2010-12-01 07:55:55   Alan's article comes from an understanding of the legal and practical constraints. An "at-grade crossing" is not something that can legally be created ad hoc (which is what the gate from Slatter's Court into the station is); another community has to give one up that they're not using. The City has some history of mis-investing in the Olive Drive area, as when gutters and curbs were put on the street instead of a safe access to downtown. Any pedestrian/bike bridge or tunnel will be expensive, but I'd find it a much better investment in the community than an "impenetrable" fence. —DougWalter

  • I always preferred the crossing in the field across from the storage place. Somebody should take some photos of the rather heavy ruts that are worn by foot and bicycle traffic through there. They are really visible when the grass is in the right phase of growth (they are visible at all times... and in the Google Street photos, but they really stand out in the spring). That is, this is where I preferred crossing if I were to do an illegal, although incredibly common, act. -jw
    • The city would have to obtain an easement to cross Union Pacific property either way, be it at-grade or separated. The railroad would need to ensure that the city would provide enough clearance for trains if a bridge were constructed. At-grade crossings already exist for cars on third, forth and fifth streets, and a pedestrian version shouldn't be out of the question. The California Public Utilities Commission has a nice guide for pedestrian crossings at It would still address safety and convenience, but would cost much less. And if the city could save money with a simpler crossing, there would be more funds available for sidewalks and gutters. -JT
      • The city might, but the people don't. My comment was about the reality of the situation, not the official, legal aspect. The reality is that the layout of the town is such that there has been, is and will continue to be significant foot and bicycle traffic across those points. Recognizing the reality of the situation should be an underlying facet of all decisions. The brutal truth is that there is a historic flow of people across those points. Moving that flow will require significant, ongoing effort, and it will be almost unpredictable where traffic patterns eventually wind up after a barrier is put in place. The human animal is pretty capable of surmounting most obstacles in their path, and most people who walk the same route daily will eventually and very naturally find the shortest path. Another aspect to recognize is that the rail company is worried about lawsuits rather than an impenetrable barrier. So long as a barrier exists that is sufficient to show photos of and prevent a large settlement, they have satisfied their actual goal. The city's motivation is likely a mix of self-preservation and concern for well being, but they don't have time to look into all options, and thus will be forced by the necessities of politics to choose one presented before them. That's not terrible, but it is a function of their available budget, in time, knowledge of the subject and money. Having worked for state governments, they are usually sufficiently distant so that they are simply concerned with satisfying regulation without regard to actual benefit. That said, I agree with you in general: they have a greater budget and can help a motivated group in finding the best solution for the community. -jw
        • My indents were misleading, JW; my comment was more directed at DougWalter. I agree however, there are lots of people currently crossing the tracks, and providing more convenient access for Olive Drive would be nice, but a cheaper option seems more achievable. -JT
      • As various documents have shown, the city is quite aware of various crossing options besides the fence, but being so much cheaper it will probably be the first built. For just access to Olive Drive, maybe another pedestrian undercrossing is not worth it, but if it also helped commuters from South Davis park and go to the train station it might be. I think even the existing train station parking lot gets full pretty often already. -NickSchmalenberger
        • Hahaha, that would suck, because parking on Olive is already super bad!
          • Thats why another parking lot for the train station would be built in that lot next to heron technologies or maybe behind design house. If parking on Olive is already bad and the pedestrian tunnel was built, couldn't it get worse from people trying to come from South Davis? Biking north on Richards OC can be scary too, which is where the Pole Line OC bike ramp could fit in.
            • Very true. Any sort of direct connection to the train station from Olive could affect parking on Olive Drive. That's sort of a separate issue as far what I disagree with in the Downtown connection parts of the op-ed. If there were a bridge or at-grade crossing, it could still mean more cars on Olive. I just think a bridge is an expensive investment that serves a limited pool of users. And as far as a connection to the poleline bridge, I still think an at-grade crossing would be cheaper. There is already a bike path from the overpass to 2nd street. Why purchase a million dollars worth of concrete and structural engineering, when you could to it for a 10th of the cost with a path and a gate. -JT
              • Having the separated grade crossing more directly connect to the train station with more parking would help increase the pool of users too. -NickSchmalenberger
                • An at-grade crossing would have the same effect. -JT
                  • I don't think it would help safety enough though, just look at the spanish partiers who got run over by a train that didn't stop at their station when they were crossing on the tracks instead of using the tunnel under the tracks. If the fence is on the Olive Drive side of the tracks, it won't stop drunk people coming from the North. If people are rushing to meet a train also, they won't be as careful crossing at grade. -NickSchmalenberger
                    • We already have a system like this for cars on 5th street. There are crossing guards that swing down when trains approach. A similar system could be used for bikes and pedestrians, with motorized gates and signaling. As long at the city make a diligent effort to provide protection, drunk people crossing the tracks would be acting on their own accord. Many other cities use these already, typically on lightrail systems in heavily urban areas, and standard designs are provided in the California Pubic Utilities Commission guide mentioned above.
                      • At the Mountain View and Menlo Park Caltrain stations I currently use, there are at grade pedestrian crossings with the arms and flashing lights and stuff, and they do work to protect pedestrians. A separated grade pedestrian crossing will let more people cross faster and while another train is crossing, and will also not need to be arranged with respect to other grade crossings on the line. Separated grade is better for everyone, and I think building it to help people get to the train station should really help give it more reason to be built.
      • So if the fence ended at the Pole Line Road overcrossing and the ramp there was built, could it be enough to discourage people from crossing as much to downtown? Probably the most practical options to consider are those that have already been cost estimated and told to SACOG and stuff. Another of those options is apparently to have an undercrossing associated with more parking for the train station on Olive Drive. -NickSchmalenberger
  • I am the author of the OpEd. Many of the points brought up here are quite valid, but the difference between common sense and reality can be stark. An at-grade crossing at the station is indeed a better and cheaper solution with warning devices, than a bridge. However, the railroad policy is that any entity must give up two crossings two build one crossing. Davis can give up Arboretum Crossing into the Nishi Property, but the only other crossing is Swingle east of Mace, and that is a multi-tens-of-millions project. The crossings in town are not on the main line and UP rarely operates here, so those don't "count". So the City is left with two very expensive projects for 1000 people. That is a rough choice, but the City got into this by building so many units on Olive without solving the problem when those were built (I had suggested at the time the developers should have to pay a large portion of the cost of a pedestrian bridge as mitigation, since you would have students on one side of the tracks and bars on the other, an unsafe situation, but the council of a decade-plus ago did not do this, so we have the situation as it exists today). There is a minor possibility the PUC could intervene if the hazard of not having a crossing could be documented (like maybe a couple of people hit by cars at Olive & Richards) but it is unlikely. At L Street, an at-grade crossing will never happen, as the railroad has a small yard there and they will never allow a crossing as pedestrians could climb between the cars during switching operations, gates & bells or no. The fence, by the way, is steel-reinforced iron, I was told by someone on the project that it was to the specifications of the Israeli company that built the fence that keeps Palestinians out of Jewish settlements. Any holes are going to take a lot more effort than a teenager who snuck off with some bolt cutters. This is a complex and very expensive conundrum for Davis. My purpose in writing this OpEd, and my hope, is that the City of Davis will use this crisis as an opportunity to finally link Olive Drive with Davis legally. This isn't just about the Olive Drive residents. The Hwy. 40 bike path will be essentially isolated from downtown and East Davis. As well, there is a line of about 70-90 beautiful trees right on the property line of the railroad right where the fence may go. The City of Davis must be vigilant to make sure the railroad does not harm this important line of beautiful and historic trees. Union Pacific does not have a great track record in this regard. They have at times cut first and dealt with the angry residents later, when it is too late for the trees. -AlanMiller
    • So when you say crossing, do you only mean an at-grade crossing? Would the city need to give up two crossings if it wanted to construct a bridge?
      • For a bridge there is no issue with the railroad. Their policy is to lessen the total number of at-grade crossings over time with the 2 for 1 policy. Any at-grade crossing, no matter how well protected, has the potential for train vs. X. -AlanMiller
        • That is an unfortunate policy for Olive Drive. I agree that poor planning worked into the problem to some extent. Still, the Richards underpass is within walking distance for most residents of Olive Drive and a bridge seems a bit unecessary. I would imagine that the city (and by extention, the taxpayers), would be somewhat unwilling to fork out a few million dollars for a bridge since the Richards tunnel is so close. If a developer could be persuaded to pay for a better connection to downtown, that would be a better solution. It would place a greater portion of the cost on the users (new residents), rather than the city. -JT

2010-12-01 12:20:59   With every project, we can be either become more like Star Trek or more like Blade Runner... —JimStewart

I was hoping Tickle Me Elmo would be one of the options... —TomGarberson

2010-12-01 13:45:45   If I were a betting man, I'd say that someone with an acetylene torch will cut a useful hole or two within two months of the fence being completed. This seems like a waste of money. —WilliamLewis

2010-12-01 14:13:14   The railroad and the highway are like a river. They greatly reduce pedestrian and cyclist mobility. What's worse is that no matter how many fences you have you will still have people getting killed at controlled crossings. This move should be considered as analogous to security theatre since those who are going to get themselves killed will do so anyhow. —ThrowAwayAccount100

2010-12-01 16:08:47   As far as being a preventive measure for deaths, it doesn't seem to me as if it would stop it. If the person is truly suicidal, they will either jump the fence or go to a more convenient spot, as they have done in the past (heading to the slightly hidden but easily accessible spot behind NAPA for example.) As for the drunks... you tell me when a fence has stopped the inebriated from doing stupid things? An at grade crossing would be best for the common user, but regardless of what happens, people will still die no matter which option is chosen. Therefore 'death deterrent' should not even be an issue for this proposed fence. —Wes-P

2010-12-01 16:46:11   The notion that the fence is intended to or must prevent all deaths strikes me as a straw man. I suspect the question is whether it's reasonably likely to prevent at least one death. You can easily argue that if there's a reasonable chance it'll save a life, the fence is worth the cost, and that the inconvenience of having to walk/bike around pales in comparison.

I'm not arguing in favor of the fence, I'm just saying that I think the weight of opinion here seems to be against an argument that no one is actually making, and that no one in their right mind would really consider making. —TomGarberson

  • That's about the most rational thing anyone's said about the issue yet. Thanks Tom. —BrianPakpour
  • The problem with the "save one life" argument is that the could also "end one life" or two, etc. There is no way of knowing, but someone who could have had the sense to avoid a giant train where there are two tracks could get hit going around the east end of the fence where there are four, or get crushed between cars in a switching operation since there is a yard there, or get hit by a car coming off Hwy. 80 at 50mph where the fence ends, or could be crossing Richards/Olive treacherous intersection and get hit by a car. We can never know as we can't test two futures only speculate. This fence takes $250,000 in public funds and does lower the sheer number of crossings and does lower the liability for the railroad. But is that the object of public funds? My argument, feel free to make your own, is that public funds should be used to offer a safe, convenient and legal option for the residents of Olive Drive and other Davisites to use. Most of the deaths would have occurred anyway, so this project is, in my opinion, about as useful as a suicide net on the Golden Gate Bridge. -AlanMiller
    • I think what Tom points out, and I agree with, is it is reasonable to believe that lives could be saved using the fence. It is also reasonable that $250,000 in funds is a fair amount of money to spend doing it. Any effort such as this employs weighing pros and cons. In this case, the pros (saving lives) could reasonably justify the cons (relatively minimal cost; closing off Olive Drive neighborhood from crossing the tracks). Conversely, the prohibitive costs of other options mentioned in the article might not seem reasonable. I'm not sure what the right answer is. But I don't think it's fair to call this a "save one life," argument. It's merely a cost/benefit analysis those responsible for building the fence must consider and I think it's a fair outcome. Whether it's the right one is a different question. —BrianPakpour
      • Brian - Actually, $250,000 is a fairly small amount of money to spend to save a human life. Most government agencies place the statistical value of a human life well into the millions of dollars. I'm looking right now at a memo from the Department of Transportation raising their number to $6 million for the year 2009. —GregKuperberg

2010-12-05 04:54:52   Railroad Deaths Folks, I totally agree that the city should build a safe passage across Olive Drive. But the idea that we won't need the passage if we build that fence is nonsense. This stretch of track is the most dangerous half mile in Davis as measured by fatalities. Four men have died on these tracks since 1998: Nanda Butler, Patrick Allison, Samuel Carrasco, and Fred Nightbear Iyotte. Consider what the argument is really saying to the families of these four men. It's saying, a fence wouldn't have done any good because they were just alcoholics and suicidal head cases that would have found some way to kill themselves anyway. I know that it's not intentional, but that is a callous and false answer to an important safety question. Yes, there should be a safe passage, and moreover, the tracks are dangerous and crossing them directly is just not acceptable. —GregKuperberg

2010-12-05 14:04:56   I'm not a lawyer, so this isn't legal advice. Maybe a real lawyer should look into the various forms of easements, particularly "easement by necessity". —JimStewart

  • There is a name for an easement: It's called a railroad crossing. —GregKuperberg
  • To expand on my answer, which was not just meant as a witticism: I understand that in general an easement is a legal right to use property and not a physical access point. An at-grade crossing is both (at least in spirit), since it is both the signal and crossing arms, and the right to step over the tracks. The courts are extremely unlikely to grant any other type of easement, especially if four people have been killed on this stretch since 1998. —GregKuperberg

2010-12-05 14:19:34   Incidentally, I ride the Amtrak to San Jose quite often and have observed workers installing fences along several parts of the line. I'm not sure whether those installations are related or not but it would seem, due to the timing, that the installations are related. In other words, this may have less to do with Davis, per se, than with a system wide upgrade. But that's my humble observation. Also, if the fences are the same, they seem fairly hardy. One would require quite powerful tools in order to cut a hole. —BrianPakpour

2010-12-05 14:36:06   We've got several crossings from central to east davis as the tracks go north/south without incident. I've wondered for years why 2nd and L isn't a crossing to Olive, would make it so much easier and an alternative exit into town. —RichardL

2010-12-16 18:11:36   To BrianPakpour. You are correct, the fencing you see going up in the Bay Area is part of the same program, materials purchased via CCJPA, financed by Proposition 1B and given to Union Pacific for installation. In these other locations, there are either fencing off a station or walling off mid-block short-cuts, to highly encourage pedestrians and bicyclists to go to the next legal crossing. The Davis Olive Drive situation is somewhat unique, in that an entire neighborhood has multiple short cuts into different major sections of town with only one legal way out that adds a significant amount of time relative to the short cuts that have been there as long as the railroad has been there. Olive Drive is not your typical grid pattern with crossings of some sort every X number of 1000's of feet apart as in Richmond and Oakland where the fences are going up.

To Richard L. The City has long wanted to cross the railroad tracks at L Street for cars, bicycles and pedestrians. Cost is one factor, design is another, as there is little room to safely ramp Olive and/or L Streets up/down/around for a crossing. Also, at-grade is completely out-of-the-question here, as this is the west throat of the small Davis interchange yard. The railroad would never allow an at-grade crossing where trains switch, as people get impatient and climb through stopped trains which is one of the most dangerous activities pedestrians (and even bicyclists) can engage in around railroads. Hickory Lane is actually an easement the City bought from the Calori Family in the 1920's (I've seen the transfer deed), with the intent of connecting I Street to Olive Drive. Southern Pacific never granted the City the two needed at-grade crossing to connect I Street to Hickory Lane. This just goes to show this problem has been brewing for nearly a century. —AlanMiller