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By now, most people must be aware that there was a fatal train/vehicle accident in Palo Alto on Friday, April, 15th, 2011. The driver, a lady in her mid-60s who was visiting family in Palo Alto, somehow stopped on the tracks when a train approached. While the exact details of the incident have not been released to the media at this writing, given the configuration of this intersection/at-grade crossing, it’s not hard to guess that the driver, unfamiliar with the safety issues of involving this particular intersection, failed to use common sense, and entered the “track zone”, stopped on the tracks, and was unable to move the car in time to avoid being hit. The following picture, published by one of the local newspapers, shows the aftermath of the accident:
Even though this incident will doubtless be the result of the motorist’s failure to stay out of the “track zone” until it was safe to enter, this particular intersection is very dangerous during “drive time”, when Alma Street is heavily loaded. Is this intersection the only one, or are there others? The following pictures, obtained via Google/Earth and Google/Streets, provides both aerial and street level views of this intersection, and the “track zone” that motorists must negotiate:
Aerial View of Caltrain/Charleston Road/Alma Street Intersection
View From West Charleston Road, looking South—Showing Obstructions.
Newly Added Safety Improvements At The Charleston Road/Alma Street Caltrain Crossing.
Aerial View of Alma/Charleston/Caltrain Intersection— With Proposed Additional Buffer. The General Situation At The Alma/Charleston/Caltrain Intersection The gates at Charleston/Alma are timed to start going down about 20 seconds before a train actually reaches the intersection. This is not a lot of time, but if people follow the rules (meaning using common sense), then they would never go onto a track and stop. There is only about forty-two feet of "buffer" between the tracks and Alma. If someone does end up on the tracks when the gates start going down, there are times that there is no place for the car to go. The traffic is heavy during afternoon “drive times”. If there is a car in this "buffer" that can't make an immediate right turn, then the car(s) behind it have no place to go (as the left lane is also likely holding one (or more) car(s). To make matters worse, this is effectively a "blind corner", since there is a hedge that comes right up to the sidewalk, making it impossible to see to the right. Trains going North->South are easy enough to spot, but not in the other direction. Trains are moving along at full speed at this intersection. The next station down is "The Crossings" (San Antonio) and downtown Mountain View is next. If the train isn't scheduled to stop at San Antonio, then it will be moving along at whatever speed at which it is traveling. In the case of a South-North train, it's next stop is California Avenue.
Trains don't "stop on a dime", so people need to keep that in mind when thinking about stopping on train tracks, for whatever reason. People tend to panic at times like these, and often aren't thinking clearly when they see a train bearing down on themselves Possible Solutions The following suggestions about increasing car safety at this intersection, and other places along the Caltrain line, in general— Problems Unique To Palo Alto Increase Guard Arm Activation Time to 30-40 Seconds The guard arm activation is about 20 seconds before the train arrives. Given the very small buffer on the Alma Street side of the tracks, it would make sense to increase the timing of the activation by 10-20 seconds, even though this will reduce the flow of traffic during peak traffic times. The engineering reasons for this timing of twenty seconds no doubt exist, but how much though was given to the safety of motorist “stranded” on the tracks when a train approaches is an open question. During “off-hours”, the timing could be reduced to the twenty second warning period, if that seems appropriate. Use Sidewalk As Emergency Buffer The current safety project (funded by Measure A, due to be completed in June, 2011), has focused on pedestrian/bicyclist “safety”, at the expense of motorist “safety”. The picture below provides some sense of what the project planners have provided in terms of new “hardware” to protect pedestrians/bicyclists. The following picture (provided by Google/Earth) of the Charleston/Alma intersection suggest that the south-side walkway might be used as a safety zone for cars that end up in the “track zone”, rather than just a walkway. This suggestion would require removing the new pipe separators, and the curbing, and some additional signage to alert motorists that this space could be used in an emergency. It would also require some rethinking of how pedestrians would cross the street at this point. Construct Vehicular Underpass This solution is obvious—just expensive. The Palo Alto City Council has shown little courage in addressing this matter. So, it’s time to move the decision out of their hands— to an agency that has more resources, and more interest in protecting motorists’ safety. Build Pedestrian Underpass
Constructing a pedestrian underpass at this intersection would offer a clear solution to pedestrian safety. Although the costs would be expensive—given the high cost of dealing with the aftermath of accidents involving death, it would seem that a $5-$10M expenditure at certain locations—like this intersection, would prove worthwhile. Given that the Palo Alto City Council was enthusiastic about authorizing a $5M bicycle underpass in the downtown area, their silence about a similar underpass at the Charleston/Alma intersection—which is heavily traveled by children go to/from South Palo Alto schools—has been curious, at best. Move Traffic Light To The West Side Of Caltrain Tracks Moving the traffic light to the west side of the tracks might reduce the cars that sit between the tracks and the light, up to three per lane. This would reduce the opportunity for cars to sit on the tracks waiting for the light to change. Cars could still back up in the right lane, waiting for access to Alma Street (to the south), but this opportunity would be greatly reduced from the present situation, based on the stop lights being on Alma Street. Add Annunciators on West Charleston To Announce Train Coming at least 15 seconds before Guard Arms Activated. At the moment, the only warning of an on-coming train is the twenty seconds announced by the initiation of the flashing red lights, and the activation of the guard arms. It is suggest that electronic signage (annunciators) be added on the east-bound lane of West Charleston Road that signal the approach of trains at least fifteen seconds before the crossing guards/lights are activated. Add Annunciators on East/West Roads To Alert Motorists of Traffic Flow Problems. Traffic backups when there are accidents at the Alma/Charleston intersection, even when the train is not involved. Annuciators alerting motorists on East Charleston, and Arastradero Road, that there is an impediment at this intersection would alert them to choose alternate routes around this obstruction. This would reduce delays, and frustration, at times like these—reducing the possibility of additional accidents that were the result of people trying to make illegal u-turns to avoid the backups. Remove Hedgerow On West Side Of Tracks For Up to 200 Feet There is clearly no visibility to the south, at the Charleston/Alma Caltrain crossing, on the west side of the tracks. The picture below demonstrates that point clearly—
View to South, On West Side of Caltrain Tracks, On West Charleston Road Display A Real-time Video Of Tracks To The South With the recent advent of low-cost/high quality outdoor electronic displays, it might prove helpful to display track conditions on the Caltrain line (at least to the south). This display might be considered a distraction by some, but seeing the train actually approaching would be an additional warning that is not currently available to motorists. Move Limit/Stop Line Back Fifty Feet On West Charleston Road. Currently, the stop/limit line for the red light is just a couple of feet away from the guard arms. Moving this limit line back thirty-fifty feet would provide some additional space for people to utilize should they end up on the tracks when a train is approaching. System-wide Add Annunciators on Alma To Alert Motorists Of Traffic Impediments On Alma. Adding annunciators along the full length of the Central Expressway/Alma Street roadway that could be used to alert motorists to obstructions would be helpful for reducing backups for both accidents, and Caltrain accidents.
Add Collision Avoidance Radar To Engines Collision Avoidance Radars, even experimental versions, should be installed on all Caltrain engines. Even if not fully reliable at this time, having any additional information about obstructions on the tracks ahead of Caltrain engines would have to be seen as a “good thing’ by all concerned. Car-on-Tracks Warnings For Trains Having “car-on-tracks” detectors that would alert trains approaching an at-grade crossing would seem to be an obvious safety improvement that should be explored by every government agency having a Caltrain presence in its jurisdiction. Administration Provide An Accurate Cost Analysis Of Providing Safety Features For Full 77-Mile Caltrain System. There does not seem to be a clear, publicly-accessible “safety model” for the Caltrain system. Member governments in the JPA (Joint Powers Agency) should insist that Caltrain Administration provide a full accounting of the current “safety model”, and a cost estimate of costs to increase the safety of the stations, and crossings. Provide Accurate Accident Statistics On Caltrain WEB-site Member agencies of the JPA should insist that the Caltrain Administration post timely, and accurate, accident information on its WEB-site. Currently, accident data, such as accident locations, fatalities, injuries, etc. are not provided on Caltrain’s WEB-site, and must be requested via a Public Information Request—to which Caltrain response times are “spotty”. Moreover, with the San Matero County Sheriff’s Office being the lead agency for accident investigation, their commitment to service to non-San Mateo County residents is open to question. This accident/incident data should also include all of the payouts that Caltrain/member agencies have made to settle claims from people injured on Caltrain property, or on public property trying to cross Caltrain property. Keep Capital Expenditure Records To Track Safety-Related Projects Capital expenditure records for Caltrain are not particularly good. This has been pointed out in Santa Clara County Grand Jury reviews of VTA, and a report on VTA by the Office of the State Auditor in 2008. (VTA funds much of Caltrains capital expenditure.)
While records might exist that can be researched to determine what projects had been funded for “safety”, comments from VTA representatives suggest that this would be “difficult” to track using the current accounting methods of these agencies. Employ Outside Safety Consultants To Evaluate Crossing Safety Issues Given the multi-agency “ownership” of the Caltrain entity, it is very clear that some issues, such as “safety” are not “well-owned”, and may, in fact, be “orphans”—with no clear advocate at the current time. One might think that City Councils in the towns where the Caltrain line passes might be highly vocal advocates for better safety at Caltrain stations and crossings. Sadly, this does not seem to be the case. Having outside safety consultants would add another “set of eyes” to this matter of safety, that seems to have little support at the moment. Use of Surveillance Equipment The use of surveillance equipment to monitor crossings like the Caltrian/Alma Street/Charleston Road crossing would provide a wealth of information to police and traffic planners, as to just how safe, or unsafe, a given intersection, or at-grade Caltrain crossing might be. This equipment is not particularly expensive these days, and can be easily moved to various locations when needed. Volunteers can be recruited to review these videos for purposes of indexing them for near misses. Over time, software can be written to analyze these video streams to provide a full analysis based on parameters provided by the local police/traffic engineers. General Anti-Car Problems During the last two decades, the Palo Alto City Council, and its Planning Department seem to have become infatuated with “alternative transportation”. This infatuation has resulted in various efforts to downsize streets, such as El Camino Real, the Charleston/Arastradero Corridor, Middlefield Road, and Embarcadero Road. However, there has been little interest exhibited on the part of the traffic planners (citing “City Council policy” as reasons) to include underpasses on the Caltrain line to increase safety for pedestrians and motorists. This is a Palo Alto problem, but elected officials in all JPA Municipalities, and Counties, are encouraged to review their “policy” about vehicular transportation safety to insure that a similar fixation on “alternative transportation” has not caused a similar lack of interest in street design issues that would lead to increased motorists’ safety. Create A Motorist Advisory Commission Currently, Palo Alto has a “Bicyclist Advisory Commission, but no similar advisory commissions to deal with traffic issues. Palo Alto does have a Planning and Transportation Commission, but this group does not provide the same venue that an Advisory Commission on traffic issue might. JPA member agencies are encouraged to
consider the possibility of creating such commissions for the public to provide more input about the streets, roads and traffic in the towns where they live, and work. How Safe Is Caltrain? Caltrain’s Administration, while not totally opaque, is not totally transparent, either. Because of the nature of the multi-agency operation/funding of this entity, there seems to be no clear “ownership” of system-wide safety. Questions about accidents here in Palo Alto are referred to the San Mateo County Sheriff’s office, which does not have a clear mandate to provide service to people in Santa Clara county, as say, the Palo Alto Police Department does for its citizens. Moreover, other safety-related matters, like the beating of a Caltrain rider in Redwood City recently, seem to disappear from view, as soon as the local papers tire of running articles about those injured. To make matters worse, we are now seeing both the local papers, and the public safety agencies refusing to identify those killed, or injured, on Caltrain property—trying, it would seem, to sanitize the Caltrain safety record. For the most part, residents, motorists, and Caltrain riders have little information about the overall safety of this system. All that we generally know is that there are between twenty and thirty people killed yearly by Caltrain, but we have little/no knowledge of how many people were injured, or robbed, while using the Caltrain system, or crossing Caltrain property. So—we are left with the very nagging question: just how safe is Caltrain, and what would it cost to make it safer? Conclusion: Caltrain’s costs are ever-increasing. The cost of capital expenditures is not well documented, so that actual costs of operating this system for 18,000-19,000 unique people daily is much higher than the operational budget posted on the Caltrain WEB-site would have us believe. The costs in terms of human life, and the financial aftermath of the deaths, is never documented in the local papers, or on the Caltrain WEB-site. If all of the suggestions proposed in this short paper would expanded system-wide, it would not doubt add $1B-$2B in capital costs, and additional operational costs. While there would no doubt be a reduction in the loss of human life, we are left with the question where this $1B-$2B would come from, and who would champion these expenditures? While some of the ideas proposed herein are not all that expensive, it becomes clearer by the day that shutting down Caltrain would, in the long run, be a lot less expensive, than operating it in the future—particularly with the need for safety enhancements on Caltrain property, and the city/county roads crossing this property. Thank you for taking your time to consider these matters.
Wayne Martin Palo Alto, CA www.twitter.com/wmartin46 www.scribd.com/wmartin46 www.youtube.com/wmartin46
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