Most Palo Alto residents probably know what to expect as they approach the Caltrain tracks when driving eastbound on Charleston, East Meadow Drive and Churchill Avenue. The lights are timed to allow traffic to clear the tracks when a train approaches, but that system failed to prevent the latest accident. Someone with little or no experience in one of these intersections might not realize the dangers of these crossings — or panic when the gate comes down.
On April 15, Judy Goldblatt's rental car did not clear the tracks when the lights turned red on Charleston and Alma, just before Caltrain rammed her car at about 76 miles per hour. Her husband, a passenger in the front seat, was able to escape before the train hit, but Ms. Goldblatt did not leave the vehicle and was killed instantly by the train. Some witnesses said her car appeared to be blocked by rush-hour traffic. (In 2007, Maria de Jesus Nieblas, 21, of Sunnyvale, was killed at the Meadow crossing when her westbound car lurched in front of a northbound train.)
The question for Palo Alto is this: Could this accident have been prevented if a second stoplight was located west of the tracks? Some persons who have been regularly monitoring the crossings as part of the suicide prevention program, and who have seen countless cars trapped on the tracks, believe a westside stoplight would make the intersection safer.
Jaime Rodriguez, the city's transportation chief, said if new traffic lights were installed west of the tracks they would include a "presignal," which can be timed to allow cars to get over the tracks and still make the light to cross Alma Street or turn right, he said. But this arrangement would eliminate the right turn on red, which he said "... would have an operational impact."
Rodriquez added several cautionary notes on signals west of the tracks. For example, he said engineers would have to make sure motorists turning onto East Meadow, Charleston or Churchill from southbound Alma would be able to see if there was room to queue up around the corner if the gates were down. And he said that even presignal intersections cannot stop train-vehicle accidents.
Ironically, Caltrain is in the midst of a $5.8 million safety-improvement project that has added or replaced flashing lights with LED lights on railroad gates, and changed the primary warning bell from mechanical to electronic signals at Charleston Road. And at some intersections sidewalks have been moved and new gates installed to improve pedestrian and circulation and safety. But so far, nothing has been done to avoid the type of train/automobile accident that occurred April 15.
We strongly suggest that the city begin a serious discussion about changing the configuration of traffic signals along the Alma Street and Charleston, East Meadow and Churchill crossings.
Such an initiative should include a traffic study to determine the density and duration of rush hour traffic over these dangerous intersections.
Since railroad operations at all public crossings are regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission, the city will need such data to explain its case. For all crossing modifications of the Caltrain Safety Improvement Project, which is now underway, the Valley Transportation Authority and the Joint Powers Board, which governs Caltrain, must receive approval from the CPUC, as well as the local city and Union Pacific Railroad.
An upcoming phase of the current project does call for signal modifications and replacement of the crossing arms at East Meadow and Churchill. Caltrain would design the project and the city would do the construction beginning in 2012-13. But so far, Caltrain has not said if installing signals on the west side of the tracks could be part of their plan.
Now is the time for Palo Alto to mount a concerted effort with Caltrain and the VTA to move the signals to the west side of the tracks at these intersections. So far, two lives have been lost in tragic accidents. We have the technology and the know-how to add another layer of safety to these crossings.
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