Caltrain officials are seeking community support to address the unusually high number of collisions its trains have had with cars illegally stopped on the tracks as well as individuals this year alone.
A total of seven vehicles throughout Caltrain’s three-county corridor have been struck — six of those have occurred since August with three most recently in Burlingame. As of this month, there have been 18 fatalities in 2015 alone, according to Caltrain.
Now, officials are seeking to increase enforcement, engage members of the mental health community and educate the public on how to help deter future collisions in a region where traffic and population are becoming increasingly dense.
“Running 92 trains per day on a corridor with more than 40 roadway crossings presents a unique set of challenges. Those challenges have become more difficult with increased traffic congestion and more drivers, cyclists and pedestrians crossing our tracks on a daily basis,” Caltrain General Manager Jim Hartnett said in a press release.
A typical train takes nearly a mile to stop, even after pulling the emergency brake, and 95 percent of all rail-related deaths involve drivers trying to beat a train or people trespassing on the tracks, according to Caltrain.
Of the seven vehicles struck this year, three have occurred in Burlingame. Caltrain plans to collaborate on both short-term solutions like restriping intersections as well as long-term plans like considering grade separation at the busy Broadway crossing, said Caltrain spokeswoman Jayme Ackemann.
Transit authorities stepped up enforcement at Broadway in Burlingame Wednesday in an effort to deter drivers rushing to cross an intersection from stopping on the tracks. Twelve citations were issued during the morning alone and although tickets start around $200, they can quickly stack up to $450 or more as vehicles stopped on the track are committing multiple violations of the penal code, Ackemann said.
“As troubling as these things are,” Ackemann said of the high number of accidents in Burlingame, “they also begin to seem pretty anomalous and coincidental as well, that you have all these problematic situations in the same area.”
With the state in the midst of improvements to the Highway 101 interchange at Broadway, it appears the project could be exacerbating congestion and having an impact on drivers’ behavior on the tracks.
“The city of Burlingame takes public health and safety very seriously, and we are concerned about the recent train collisions at the Broadway railroad crossing,” City Manager Lisa Goldman said in an email, while noting the city is working on solutions including a study of a grade separation project.
In the meantime, Caltrain is working with the city to improve signal timing at nearby intersections and adding pavement stripping to the existing gates as well as signals to highlight where drivers must not stop, according to Goldman and Ackemann. A common mistake is for people to forget the width of the trains extend beyond the tracks, as evidenced in a recent hit-and-run when a vehicle was narrowly struck by a train, Ackemann said. In that case, the driver fled and the train was forced to stop due to protocol — passengers and service are frequently delayed during accidents.
As collisions can also affect hundreds of passengers and repair crews are often delayed due to traffic during peak commute hours, Caltrain is fully reviewing its protocol for restoring service following a disruption and ensuring riders receive timely accurate information.
Other delays can be caused by drivers that accidentally turn onto the tracks. While the reasons differ — recently a foreigner who wasn’t familiar with the area made the mistake while another was a drunk driver — Ackemann noted the agency was fortunate no one was injured.
That wasn’t the case in Menlo Park Feb. 23 when a 30-year-old woman died when her car got stuck on the tracks, the only fatal vehicle incident this year, according to Caltrain. The caught-on-camera harrowing rescue of a drunk driver by two transit police this August in Sunnyvale highlighted the dangers of trains and vehicles colliding.
Ackemann said community engagement and educating both drivers and passengers to be aware of their surroundings when along the corridor is crucial.
With 18 fatalities along the corridor, not including a pedestrian who was struck in San Mateo Tuesday but is expected to survive, Caltrain is also considering installing fencing as well as video cameras in certain areas.
But outside of engineering improvements, Ackemann said there needs to be broader effort to address the intentional incidents.
“We spend a lot of time and energy in the department and as an organization working with the mental health community throughout the region. But how we can do more, not just as an organization, but as a community, that’s the real question that we need to spend some time on regionwide,” Ackemann said.
Caltrain urges passengers or others along the corridor to immediately report any suspicious behavior or anyone who seems to be in distress.
“Where we can do more is in educating riders about what to look for when they see someone who maybe is behaving in an agitated way and what to do about it. Because there’s a lot of eyes out there and if people are paying attention, the thing we want to do is encourage people to act,” Ackemann said. “I think there are probably people who have noticed some distressed individuals in our rail corridor and they just second-guess themselves and don’t want to be the one to call police. But we really want to encourage people to get involved.”
Riders can report suspicious activity by calling 911 or transit police at (877) SAF-RAIL or (877) 723-7245. For those in distress, the crisis hotline can be reached at (800) 784-2433.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106