Caltrain officials say separating train tracks from roads, commonly known as grade separations, is the most effective way to prevent people from getting struck and killed by locomotives.
The tragic and persisting problem of fatalities on the corridor, whether by accident or suicide, occurred again last month when two people were killed on the same day in separate incidents.
Those incidents — one of which occurred in Burlingame and the other in Mountain View — brought the total number of deaths due to train collisions to nine this year. In the last decade, Caltrain has seen an average of 13.5 deaths due to collisions each year.
The railroad has and continues to take various preventative measures, including partnering with suicide prevention organizations, but the most effective one is to minimize access to the tracks, said Caltrain spokesman Dan Lieberman.
“Studies have shown that denying people access to tracks is the best way to prevent fatalities. A lot of what experts say on suicide is contrary to long-standing belief, that it’s more of an impulsive act rather than a deeply thought out one and if you have something to interrupt the behavior that can be very effective,” he said.
Lieberman said that a “significant majority” of the tracks are inaccessible because they are elevated or surrounded by fencing.
“But complete grade separation of the system is the best solution and working in partnership with cities toward separating our grade crossings is one of the goals outlined in the Caltrain Business Plan,” he said. The Business Plan is a policy document that maps the future of the railroad.
Caltrain is currently building a grade separation in San Mateo aimed for completion by 2021 and is working with other cities in the corridor, including Burlingame, to develop additional grade separation plans. This year, Caltrain has completed $3.5 million worth of improvements at existing grade separations, Lieberman said.
But separating every at-grade crossing throughout the corridor is not likely to happen anytime soon as it takes years, if not decades, and 10s of millions of dollars to complete each one.
There are currently 42 at-grade owned by Caltrain on the corridor plus another 30 owned by Union Pacific. Completing grade separation projects at all of those locations cold cost as much as $11.1 billion.
Also, transit police target areas where trespassing is likely to occur in order to keep people out of harm’s way, Lieberman said, adding that all officers are trained to approach people seeking to harm themselves and talk them down.
Caltrain partners with the San Mateo County Suicide Prevention Committee, the Santa Clara County Suicide Prevention Advisory Committee and Project Safety Net to inform the public about suicide and ways to prevent it. The railroad is also the lead sponsor of the BraveMaker Film Festival screening of “The Edge of Success” on Sept. 12 and will participate in panel discussions afterward. The film examines clusters of teenage suicides that occurred in 2008-09 and in 2014-15. Some of those suicides occurred on Caltrain tracks.
Caltrain also works with Operation Lifesaver, which Lieberman described as the preeminent rail safety organization in the United States, and the Crisis Text Line, and contact information is posted at every Caltrain station. There are 250 suicide prevention signs at Caltrain stations, a dedicated suicide prevention resource page on its website and the railroad has raised $25,000 for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness walks. It has also sponsored the Caminar for Mental Health symposium three times.
Lieberman noted that September is both rail safety and suicide prevention month during which time Caltrain produces educational videos, conducts outreach at stations and festivals, and also launches Operation Clear Tracks, in which transit police warn trespassers and hand out safety brochures rather than tickets.
If you or someone you know needs help, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 102