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Residents call for changes at Palo Alto rail crossings

Original post made on Mar 30, 2012

Palo Alto's vision for the Caltrain corridor should include better east-west connections and enhancements to busy intersections, but its top priority should be grade separating the rail crossings at East Meadow Drive and Charleston Road, residents told city officials at a packed public hearing Thursday evening.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Thursday, March 29, 2012, 10:35 PM

Comments (26)

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Posted by Traveller
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 30, 2012 at 8:35 am

The crossings should have much better signage. I was recently in Europe where there are not many grade crossings but on those I saw had highway style signs with messages such as "gates closing" yards before the gates and yellow painted warnings on the roadway with wheel noise.

Many of our car/train accidents involve visitors to the area who are unfamiliar with the roads and these type of warnings would help visitors.

Our road signage is pretty poor compared to other developed countries.


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Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 30, 2012 at 9:37 am

I wrote this overview of the safety issues at the East Charleston/Alma Crossing last year--

Caltrain Safety Issues At the Caltrain/Alma Street/East Charleston Road Crossing:
Web Link

No one on the Palo Alto City Council responded to the submission of the paper to the Council. There is no evidence than any of them read it, or that they have much interest in this problem.

There have been no followup stories about how the fatal accident involving the out-of-town visitor was resolved, either. Like most Caltrain accidents, all of the facts are never printed in local papers, and we tend to forget about these accidents, and the victims, over time.


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Posted by Alma Street
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Mar 30, 2012 at 10:52 am

Most of these car vs. train incidents seem to happen when cars turn off Alma Street and maybe don't realize that the train tracks are going to be right there. A simple solution is to just ban turns (both right turns and left turns) from Alma Street to all streets crossing the train tracks. At a minimum, at least ban right turns on red lights. These changes should give us most of the safety improvements for minimal cost.

For the few east-bound incidents, the solution that was discussed last time was to move the red lights to in front of the train tracks instead of the current position behind the train tracks. Is that still under consideration?


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Posted by FrankF
a resident of Ventura
on Mar 30, 2012 at 10:56 am

FrankF is a registered user.

Yes - grade separation. It's the think to do. Expensive yes and we might not have funds available immediately but please let's put it on our list, and start planing for it.

There might also be some homes impacted depending on what kind of intersection we envision so let's start the conversation now. And if it's 20 years before we can afford to start construction at least we would be able to buy these properties as they become available (if we do indeed need to take any homes for the intersection).


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Posted by Alma Street
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Mar 30, 2012 at 11:09 am

What will new grade separation really look like? Look at the existing grade separations in Palo Alto: San Antonio Road, Oregon Expressway, Embarcadero Road, University Ave. All of these are much less friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists than the current at-grade crossings. Is it even possible to make grade separations suitable for non-car users?

I'm not even going to get into how ugly the grade separations are.


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Posted by Jim H.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 30, 2012 at 11:27 am

To "Alma Street": For a nice non-car user grade separation, look at the tunnel at the end of Homer that connects to the PA Medical Foundation.


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Posted by Penny Ellson
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Mar 30, 2012 at 11:40 am

I don't like being misquoted. I said, "south Palo Alto has few crossings and no grid network of streets, so large numbers of east/west trips (all modes of transportation) are pushed to East Meadow and Charleston.

In any future rail scenario, increased frequency of trains would increase the need for grade separation at these locations. Train preemption and safety already are problems, and that will worsen as the number of trains increases.

I never said south Palo Alto "has no arterials." We were discussing east/west travel. In these directions, Charleston/Arastradero is a residential arterial/school commute corridor, San Antonio is an arterial, and East Meadow is a collector street/school commute corridor. They carry a lot of traffic, with the heaviest peaks on Charleston and East Meadow during the morning school commute times because there are so many schools served by these streets.

Grade separation for all modes is currently needed at Charleston and Churchill, at minimum, to maintain operations and safety as train frequency increases. This isn't "improvement". It is MAINTENANCE. It should have been done already. Engineers have been talking about this for decades. Need for grade separation should be studied at other interesections, as well.

Trenching the train would facilitate the elimination of a lot of local rail impacts--now and in the future as train frequency rises. Engineers should put serious energy into finding a cost efficient way to trench if they are going to go this route with faster, more frequent trains. Palo Alto is not the only Peninsula community with these problems.

If Caltrain is smart, they will learn from the mistakes of HSRA and develop engineering solutions that are sensitive to local environmental context. I hope they will, because I think improved Caltrain is our best bet to create a more robust spine to our future public transit system. To become that, they need political support which will be hard to achieve without thoughtful contect sensitive engineering solutions. Let's get it right.--I don't want Caltrain to lose public confidence as HSR has.


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Posted by Alma Street
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Mar 30, 2012 at 12:52 pm

Jim H - The article sounds like the city is trying to create safe non-car crossings for pedestrians and bicyclists (like the Homer tunnel), but they were shouted down by people who want the city to focus on car-oriented crossings.


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Posted by Very concerned
a resident of Southgate
on Mar 30, 2012 at 12:53 pm

Six weeks ago, my husband stopped just before the tracks at the corner of Churchill and Alma (Paly side). He was in the left turn lane with a southbound train approaching. He looked to his right and the car next to him had completely stopped right on the southbound tracks and the crossing arm was resting on top of their car. There were three adult passengers in the car--two women in front and a man in the back. He motioned for them to pull back off the tracks, but then noticed the terror in the driver's face and that she was completely immobilized by the situation. He could also tell there was great screaming being directed at her by the other passengers.

With absolutely no time to spare, he jumped out and lifted the crossing arm up off their vehicle and indicated for her to backup instantly. Scared to death, all she could barely do was roll back off the track. My husband mentioned he was even then not certain it was enough to clear impact--an inch, maybe two, was all it ended up being as the train was upon them. The collateral damage could have been significant.

The train stretched across into the intersection and came to a halt and the conductor got out. He came over the their car. Obviously, he had seen the car on the tracks long before and feared the absolute worse--these poor conductors. He anxiously and angrily explained to driver the possible consequences of their actions and not to do it ever again, then motioned to my husband, got back into the train and pulled off. As the train pulled away, on the Alma side of the tracks, there were two Palo Alto motor cycle cops justing waiting--most likely they had been notified about a possible incident.

I tell this only because of the tragic death and accident at East Meadow last year, and now, this possible tragedy avoided at the Churchill/Alma Crossing; but, it was much like the same scenario as the one at East Meadow. My husband wasn't certain these individuals spoke English. Churchill, East Meadow and the Charleston eastbound intersections are so poorly marked and very confusing for any motorist new to this is area. If you notice, at least at Churchill, there is only one insignificant black and white sign off to the right of the intersection which reads: "DO NOT STOP ON TRACKS."

There is so much going at these 3 intersections: tons of students crossing at various times of the day, either on foot or on bikes, families crossing with strollers mini bikes, cars turning every which way, CalTrains roaring through, and not to forget, Alma--a major transportation artery for multiple cities. It is a wonder more incidents don't occur. If you are one of the first two cars to get caught with the train warning sounding, it is bloody scary to know whether to go on over the tracks and wait, or stay behind the tracks to wait--then cars may honk at you to pull on over to wait even if you don't want to if you are the second car. No way anyone will see that little sign off to the right, Please encourage Cal Trains to get better lights and signage now for the motorists, regardless electrification HSR... we need something done now. Traffic is horrible, risk too high, for the interim.


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Posted by Anonymous
a resident of another community
on Mar 30, 2012 at 12:55 pm

There are no cost-efficient ways to trench. Also, who would pay for a trench that provides zero benefit to the train and its users, while providing great benefit to the community through improved traffic flow and reduced noise?

Palo Alto itself should figure out how to grade separate each crossing in a cost-effective manner, and approach Caltrain / HSR only then-- and most definitely not hat-in-hand.


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Posted by Grandma
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 30, 2012 at 1:19 pm

I remember several years ago when grade separation was being considered in South Palo Alto; an overpass was talked about for East Charleston. However, this would require that several homes on East Charleston would have to be taken by eminent domain.

At that time East Meadow would end at the railroad tracks and would not be considered for an overpass. I hope this thinking has changed; I agree with those who want East Meadow to also have an overpass. Students riding their bikes between South PA and JLS, and South PA students riding their bikes to Gunn need grade separation.

On the other hand I feel sorry for home owners whose houses will be taken by eminent domain.


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Posted by Alma Street
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Mar 30, 2012 at 1:25 pm

Ending East Meadow at the train tracks makes sense. A lightweight pedestrian bridge could be built in its place relatively inexpensively and probably without condemning any homes. Think of the pedestrian bridge that Mountain View has over the train tracks. This is the main bicycle route that kids take from midtown Palo Alto to Gunn HS, so building a safe route is very important.


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Posted by HardToImagine
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 30, 2012 at 1:28 pm

When I think of grade separation I have to reflect on what was done in the San Carlos area. Train tracks were raised on a high berm and streets run through huge 'dips' under it. Look at Brittan Ave and at Rawlston Ave, both at El Camino. I cannot imagine either solution along the Alma corridor. Nor can I see another San Antonio over-crossing - way too big for the residential areas. Partial trenching of the train tracks to enable a much lower structure might be possible (think of the light rail line along 101 at the end of the Moffit Field runway). But would an overpassing be 4 lanes wide?? I'd hope we could get by with only two.
Full trenching of the train tracks is probably prohibitively expensive (though I have no figures and welcome any). Here is a 2010 article from which you can figure 1/2 - 1 billion for Palo Alto alone: Web Link)
And what of Alma when all done? Would it remain 4 lanes wide, or be reduced to 2?
I don't want to appear negative; but the cost, the impact, and the 'palo alto way' make it extremely unlikely in my opinion.
I think we'll have to make them safer.


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Posted by Traveller
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 30, 2012 at 2:25 pm

Here is an example of better signage for a grade crossing with traffic light just beyond. Yellow boxes are painted in the roadway of the grade crossing Web Link


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Posted by Traveller
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 30, 2012 at 2:27 pm

Also note that the gates cross both sides of the street and have skirts which reach down to street level.


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Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Mar 30, 2012 at 3:55 pm

@Traveler: the video clip you posted the link to shows heavier-duty Euro-style gates with a fence curtain extending to the pavement that can trap vehicles/peds/bikes inside the crossing once they lower.

In the USA, flimsy break-away gates are used, and the far side of the crossing is often left open. Even in "four quadrant" gate-protected crossings (both sides of each travel direction covered by gates), the gates are still easy to break-away and/or swing out of the way.


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Posted by NeverPlayorBeAroundTrains
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 30, 2012 at 5:53 pm

Mostly, the parents should truly train the kids if their route is going to be crossing a railroad track.
It's not magic.
Young kids should be with parents; and some older kids "kid" around too much re: the train.


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Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside
on Mar 30, 2012 at 11:37 pm

The trenching cost is $10,000 per inch.


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Posted by gsheyner
a resident of another community
on Mar 31, 2012 at 7:35 am

gsheyner is a registered user.

Thanks, Penny. I hope my adjustment to the story reflects your comments accurately. -Gennady


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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 31, 2012 at 8:32 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

As for trenching providing zero benefit to the rails, untrue. Trenching, such as the Alameda Corridor, allow speeds higher than the 79 mph limit for grade crossings. Granted that a 33 foot deep trench would be a significant expense, it would forever after eliminate grade crossing problems. See AlamedaCorridor.com


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Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 1, 2012 at 8:12 am

> Most of these car vs. train incidents seem to happen when
> cars turn off Alma Street

BTW, there have not very many vehicle/train accidents on record at East Meadow, or East Charleston, over the years. Unfortunately, these accidents are not recorded in a readily-accessible place, like the City's web site.



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Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Apr 1, 2012 at 8:24 am

> more signage ..

At-grade Caltrain Crossing At Alma Street/West Charleston Road:
Web Link

This video was taken at the location where the fatal accident occurred last year. The point-of-view is on the West Charleston Side--looking to the east. The problem here is that the homes and shrubs obscure motorists vision to the south. The warning time between the activation of the crossing guard arms and the arrival of the train is about twenty seconds--which doesn't give people a lot of time to react.

One suggestion that has been proposed would be to move the stop light from Alma to the west side of the tracks--effectively removing the 2-4 cars that sit in the short buffer space between the tracks and Alma. Having the light on the west side of the tracks would reduce the likelihood that cars would sit on the tracks during red light phases.

While nothing short of a grade separation will make this intersection truly "safe", this simple change would help to make the poor visibility of this intersection less problematic for motorists.


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Posted by Penny
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Apr 2, 2012 at 10:39 am

Thank you, Gennady. Yes. It's better.


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Posted by Julian
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 2, 2012 at 1:50 pm

The tracks have been there for 160 years. They did not suddenly become a problem in the last 2. Clearly, the problem lies elsewhere.


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Posted by David Pepperdine
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 4, 2012 at 11:11 am

One thing that confuses people with these on-grade crossings:

The barriers start coming down, the bells start clanging, and then (in the eastbound direction) the light turns GREEN! Now, I understand it's done that way so that eastbound cars on (or too near) the tracks have a chance to get out of the way... but it's still very confusing, especially to newcomers. They sometimes end up freezing in the face of these conflicting directives.

Wish I had a solution to offer. Maybe someone else does?


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Posted by better solution
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 4, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Better solution is to move the stop lights to in front of the train tracks so cars can never stop on the train tracks at red lights. Also prohibit right turns on red lights.


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