Editorial: Lessons from car-train accidentNo one has suggested that the death of Judith Goldblatt on the train tracks at Charleston Road a year ago was anything other than a tragic accident, in spite of the secretive and evasive handling of the case by Palo Alto and other officials.
Culture of defensiveness and secrecy reflects poorly on city and disrepects the public's right to know
Goldblatt, visiting local relatives and driving a rental car, apparently drove onto the tracks without realizing there were cars ahead blocking her path. (To read the Weekly's investigative article on the accident, published April 13, go to www.PaloAltoOnline.com and search for "Questions remain.")
Almost immediately after the horrific accident last April 15 public concerns were raised over the safety of Palo Alto's four grade-level railroad crossings, the placement and timing settings of traffic signals and the operation of the Charleston-Alma traffic signal in particular.
Nearby residents reported that trains had been slowed after the accident as a precaution when passing through that crossing, leading the Weekly to begin asking questions of authorities.
The Weekly learned that Caltrain engineers had detected problems with the "pre-emption" signaling at the Charleston crossing after the accident, causing potential inconsistent behavior of the traffic signals controlling the flow of traffic on Alma and Charleston. (When a train is approaching an intersection, it triggers a message to the traffic lights to sequence to red along Alma St. so that there is time for traffic crossing the tracks to move to safety before the train passes.)
Despite the clear public safety concerns being raised, what became a year-long investigation of the accident by the Weekly ran into resistance almost from the beginning.
Palo Alto and Caltrain officials referred inquiries to the San Mateo County Sheriff's office, which functions as transit police for Caltrain and is responsible for investigating any Caltrain-involved accidents. For months Sheriff's detectives would not comment and said their investigation was not complete.
Palo Alto City Attorney Molly Stump told the Weekly that on the day of the accident the Sheriff's office took charge of the scene and the investigation and that the Palo Alto police played no role.
At first Palo Alto officials denied they had conducted any investigation, yet now reference a "supplemental" investigation done by the police but which they refuse to release. City Manager Jim Keene doesn't even acknowledge there was a Palo Alto investigation, saying that doing an independent investigation would have "muddled" the official inquiry being done by transit authorities.
And city Planning Director Curtis Williams, responsible for the city's transportation division, has in the last few weeks made statements contradicting the Sheriff's investigators. Williams stated no cars were blocking Goldblatt's exit from the tracks at the time of the collision, while the transit police investigator Victor Lopez said he concluded that all traffic lanes were occupied and no escape route was available.
California law requires accident investigation reports to be released to anyone involved in the accident, but does not mandate their release to the general public. Despite repeated requests, both the Palo Alto City Attorney and the San Mateo County Counsel have invoked the legal exemption in the Public Records Act and refused to provide the reports, even with redactions of any sensitive or confidential information, such as the names of witnesses or photographs from the scene.
Other documents and emails obtained by the Weekly through multiple Public Records Act requests confirmed that shortly after the Goldblatt accident meetings were held between Caltrain and the city about malfunction concerns, timing changes were made to the signals and the entire traffic-signal controller was replaced.
But for months following the accident city officials declined to comment, other than to state that there was nothing in the investigative reports that suggested any cause for the accident other than Judith Goldblatt's error in judgment for stopping on the tracks.
While the exact circumstances that day will never be known, the city owed the community a complete and thorough report, and recommendations on how traffic controls at our railroad grade crossing might be improved to increase safety.
Instead, either paralyzed by liability concerns or simply insensitive to legitimate public concerns, the city made a horrible tragedy worse by not being forthcoming.
At a time when great attention has been focused on the risks associated with the Caltrain tracks running through the community and the dangers of grade crossings, the public deserves much more from its city officials.