This week, a city official said that a measure that could improve the safety of the intersection "definitely is feasible" but it is not currently planned.
Jaime Rodriguez, Palo Alto's chief transportation official, was responding to inquiries posed by several residents after Indiana resident Judy Goldblatt was killed in her rented Nissan Altima, which had become stuck on the tracks.
Witnesses said the vehicle appeared to be blocked in by heavy rush-hour traffic as it traveled east.
Goldblatt and her husband, Dr. Lawrence Goldblatt, dean emeritus of the Indiana University School of Dentistry, were in town visiting her sister.
Volunteers with Track Watch, an anti-suicide patrol, and others in the community have suggested that traffic lights at the Charleston, East Meadow and Churchill crossings should be added to the west side of the tracks.
Currently, the lights are on the east side, leaving a buffer zone for about one car between Alma Street and the train tracks. Eastbound drivers often misjudge the space, thinking it is long enough to fit two cars, or they get caught on the tracks when the light changes, residents said.
Track watchers said they have seen many harrowing close calls.
"It really was an accident waiting to happen," Grace Pariente said.
Susan Solomon agreed, saying she's seen cars trapped about once an hour.
"The impatient drivers frequently speed up when approaching the tracks, apparently trying to both cross the tracks and pass through the intersection on the green light. If the light turns red, that car may be trapped behind another car in the small area between Alma and the tracks," she said.
Moving the traffic lights at Caltrain crossings from the east side of the tracks to the west side to minimize potential vehicle jams on the tracks is possible, Rodriguez said this week.
However, he added that to do so would entail a different kind of signal configuration, which includes a pre-signal, he said.
Pre-signals are timed to allow cars to get over the tracks and still make the light to cross Alma Street or turn right. However, it would eliminate the ability to turn right on red, he said.
In addition, a pre-signal would require the installation of two more crossing gates — the "arms" that come down to block traffic from the tracks, he said.
He cautioned that a pre-signal doesn't necessarily always stop train-vehicle collisions. "There is no specific signal operation that will guarantee to keep someone from being stuck," he said.
The rail line is currently undergoing changes as part of a $5.8 million Caltrain safety-improvement project. The current Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) Phase 1 grade-crossing safety project includes four Palo Alto sites: Charleston, East Meadow, Churchill and Alma Street at Palo Alto Avenue. But the safety features, which include pedestrian gates and sidewalks, do not include any significant safety enhancements for vehicles, Rodriguez said.
The four-gate option and west-side signals "are not an option in the near future," he said.
Phase I enhancements have been completed at Charleston and East Meadow and are in the works at Churchill and Alma. A second phase will replace tracks throughout the intersections, he said.
A $699,000 safety-enhancement project (Phase III) calls for signal modifications and replacing the crossing arms at East Meadow and Churchill, he said. Caltrain would be in charge of the design and the city would do the construction in fiscal year 2012-13, he said. What the signal modifications would be is not yet clear, he said.
Caltrain has not yet responded to whether it thinks such changes are feasible.
Friday's accident is not the first fatality involving a vehicle on Palo Alto's tracks.
In 2007, Maria de Jesus Nieblas, 21, a Sunnyvale driver, was killed at the Meadow train crossing when her westbound car lurched in front of a northbound train.