Workers at a railroad crossing in Anaheim. (Photo credit: The GAUX Dispatcher)

Unemployment may be way up, but according to the Orange County Transportation Authority, so are the rates paid to workers who install railroad lights and barriers.

Anaheim, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano and Santa Ana will have to collectively pay nearly $1 million more than original estimates for improvements that will cut the noise from whistles at train crossings, the OCTA board of directors decided Monday.

Construction costs in general, including those for some OCTA projects, have dropped since the Great Recession began nearly three years ago, according to staff reports in recent months.

But the price for installing crossing bars, lights and other safety devices that make it unnecessary for trains to blow their whistles as they approach street crossings has gone up dramatically, according to an OCTA staff report and information supplied to cities along train routes.

Mary Toutounchi, OCTA’s project manager for the railroad crossing fixes, said that despite near-record unemployment figures, there are a limited number of trained workers who are qualified to make the changes to railroad lights and signals.

In addition, she and other OCTA staff said demand for workers in that specialized area has increased substantially since the original work estimate was done in 2008. On Sept. 12, 2008, a Metrolink train collided with a Union Pacific freight train near Chatsworth, killing 25. It was the deadliest accident in Metrolink history.

The Metrolink driver had run a red light while texting, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Toutounchi said the Chatsworth crash and general upgrades that occurred afterward accounted for part of the increased demand for the specialized light workers. OCTA spokeswoman Laura Scheper said that despite the economy, there has been an overall increase in railroad work.

“The railroad construction market has changed significantly from (2008), with manpower rates increasing approximately 35 percent,” according to a report last month to the San Juan Capistrano city manager from the city staff.

Toutounchi and Scheper said they would check further to determine what kind of training is required for the high-demand rail jobs and how long the training takes. Scheper said she also would find out how many separate contractors bid on the noise-deadening projects.

As a result of the manpower cost increases plus some other hikes in project costs, the cities will have to pay a total of $980,000 more.

The breakdown of the increased costs (and total costs) for each city is as follows: Santa Ana, $400,205 ($2,300,345); Anaheim, $250,584, ($1,958,832); San Clemente, $60,665 ($244,463) and San Juan Capistrano, $269,210 ($1,106,981).


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