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The great train mugging

By enelson
Sunday, April 22nd, 2007 at 10:36 am in Capitol Corridor (Amtrak), rail, Safety, Security.

looking-out-front-of-cap-corridor2.jpgSorry the blog has been idle, at least as far as my efforts are concerned. I had jury duty last week and will again starting April 30, so please be patient.

You may have heard about the Capitol Corridor incident in which an engineer was severely beaten by thugs on the train tracks just outside of Sacramento, but I receieved an e-mail with a full account of the incident from Gene Skoropowski, who runs the Corridor:

[Monday] evening we had perhaps the most serious incident regarding either vandalism or intent to disrupt service and/or injure, maim or kill members of a train crew. It is the most horrific incident I have seen in my nearly 40 years in the railroad business.

At approximately 10.15 PM last evening in West Sacramento, as Train #546 was approaching the I Street bridge to Sacramento and the Train station, the train slowed due to a restricting signal. A group of people placed themselves on the tracks in front of the train, forcing the engineer to stop the train. The engineer and engineer-in-training secured the train and went downstairs in an attempt to clear the tracks. Upon opening the door of the cab car, the engineer was dragged off the train and assaulted with rocks and bottles, and was beaten so badly that he has had staples put into his head to repair the damage, and is still suffering from blood in his urine, indicating internal injuries. Upon an immediate emergency call, the engineer (Mr. Jake Keating) was transported by ambulance to U.C. Davis Medical Center in Sacramento where he will be staying for some time. Regular riders may want to drop him a get well card, or some indication of appreciation for the job he, and all the Amtrak crews do, every day, for the Capitol Corridor service.

However, there was no rhyme or reason for this unprovoked attack, and the attacked train crew member could just as easily have been a Union Pacific crew member, a Burlington Northern crew member or a crew member from any of the other Amtrak trains. As of this writing, one member of the gang that allegedly did this is in custody by police.

It is unknown at this time what motivated this attack, or if there was any motivation at all (maybe just “sport,” which is a horrible thought given all the carnage at Virginia Tech yesterday). While the area along the tracks in West Sacramento has been a magnet for years for vagrants, homeless encampments and others who have intentionally done damage to our trains (rocks breaking windows, debris intentionally placed on the tracks to try to damage equipment), last night is by far the most serious incident we have encountered in the eight year existence of the Capitol Corridor. Our Amtrak-operated Capitol Corridor service justly has a reputation of being a safe and secure service, both for passengers and crew members. This event last night has shaken that confidence and, even with all the measures we have taken (expanded Amtrak Police presence, cab mounted cameras, surveillance cameras in and around Sacramento Station), and that are taking (on-board security cameras, wireless transmission, and wayside cameras), there does need to be some immediate follow-up action to try to prevent any repeat of this incident, particularly in West Sacramento, which has been a continuing problem area.

I am making the following requests:

1. We are making a plea to the West Sacramento Police for additional patrols in this area. We are also asking Union Pacific Police, the State Highway Patrol, and Amtrak Police to focus on this problem area in West Sacramento between the I Street Bridge and the levee where the trains cross the Yolo wetlands.

2. We are asking Union Pacific Railroad and the City of West Sacramento to immediately cut all the brush on both sides of the UPRR right-of-way, from one side of the railroad right-of-way to the other, removing all obstacles to vision, and cutting down all large bushes and trees/overgrown weeds which are housing several West Sacramento homeless encampments along the tracks, and to remove this cut brush and all other cut brush from the property, including discarded ties and other illegally dumped trash and debris that might be placed in front of trains. Police assistance will likely be required, due to the extensive homeless encampments.

3. We will be asking Caltrans and the State Highway Patrol, and all local and railroad police, to beef up9 patrols of this area, and enforce the no trespassing9 laws to their full extent.

4. To the extent this incident may be a federal offense, we will be in contact with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the U.S. Justice department and any other federal entities that may have jurisdiction over an incident of this type.

5. We will be asking Union Pacific to look at the signalling/track conditions on this part of the railroad to see if there is any way to permit trains to pass through this area as quickly as safety will allow, including relocating signals or upgrading tracks for their maximum authorized speed limit, in order to get trains through this area as quickly as possible, and to minimize any slow movement9 which might be an attraction for further incidents. We recognize that this may be difficult, as the I Street Bridge is an old, moveable bridge, with road traffic on its upper level (Jaboom Street), but we are trying to identify every possible means to minimize the opportunity for future incidents.

6. We will attempt to identify safety and security funds to accelerate installation of night-vision cameras in this area so that engineers on trains approaching this area might be given an advance warning of potential trouble9, based upon real-time observations of activity along the tracks.

It is most troubling to me since this area of west Sacramento is actually starting to be reinvigorated by new investments, and residential units along the west bank area of the Sacramento River. Yet the area along the tracks seems to have become a worse attraction for homeless, vagrant and destructive activity of late. Clearly, a determined, rigid, and consistent effort is going to be needed to be made by all parties if this problem is to be corrected and the area made safe for people and trains.

This is most somber note I have written in a long time.

Although this is clearly a rare type of incident, it raises an important question, in an age when terrorists are blowing up trains in various parts of the world.

The first thing that anyone who is aware of post 9/11 security measures might ask is, aren’t the engineers prohibited from opening the doors in such situations? When the engine’s in back, an engineer would be opening up access to all the train’s passengers with such a breach of common-sense security.

The second thing I wonder is, if this could happen in West Sacramento, it could just as easily happen in West Oakland. It seems like clearing the brush in one place and worrying about security there doesn’t limit the risks elsewhere. It’s not as if thugs and vagrants recently started hanging around train tracks.

In any case, I wish Mr. Keating a speedy and full recovery.

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4 Responses to “The great train mugging”

  1. John T Says:


    Thanks for the information. This incident is very disturbing, both for the unprovoked violence and the security implications for the entire Capitol Corridor system. The fact the the engineer opened the door to talk to those who were blocking the tracks seems like a very human thing to do, to try and discuss the problem with those who are causing it. Unfortunately, as we see in this case, that doesn’t always work.

    Your point about east bound trains is well taken, opening the doors could put the passengers at risk. However, I think that Mr. Keating had the right idea, to try and converse with those causing the problem to try and get an amicable solution so that the train could go on its way. Clearly, that didn’t happen, and policies need to be reviewed.

    John T

  2. Capricious Commuter Says:

    It is disturbing indeed, on a number of levels.

    Human or not, if the engineer wants to talk to people outside of the train who aren’t on a station platform, he should do so with a loudspeaker or out of a window. It’s fortunate that this group of criminals didn’t decide to board the train to rob and terrorize the passengers, too. Would you want the captain of an airliner to open his door for just anybody? Maybe a terrorist couldn’t crash into a building, but he could certainly find a freight train on that busy route.

  3. Arthur K. Says:

    I just read about this story in the July issue of Trains magazine, and am trying to find out if the assailants are residing illegally in the United States. It seems the press is purposely omitting when crimes are committed by people that are here illegally. It also seems that our systems are being tested by those here illegally. If we don’t start equating these types of acts with terrorism, history is doomed to repeat itself. This story was not picked up by the national news as far as I can tell. If anyone has additional info, please post it here.

    Arthur K.

  4. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    Illegal acts are illegal acts. Would you feel better if you were beaten up by someone who was here legally, rather than illegally?

    After all, the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City attacks were committed by legal residents.

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