News

Caltrain, car death was 'an accident waiting to happen'

Track watchers say there are scores of near misses similar to Friday's incident

The death of an Indiana driver at the Charleston Road train crossing during rush-hour on Friday (April 15) has left many in Palo Alto saying that it was a fatal accident waiting to happen.

Members of Palo Alto's volunteer Track Watch program have observed dozens of near misses involving cars and Caltrain, and they are calling attention to several issues they believe could have contributed to the woman's death.

The victim has been identified as Judy Goldblatt, 65, of Indianapolis, Ind., the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner's office reported today.

Recent changes made as part of a $5.8 million Caltrain safety-improvement project as well as the city's street-resurfacing work have reduced the "buffer" between Alma Street and the tracks, volunteers said this weekend. The work has also reduced the volume of warning-signal bells.

Some volunteers and others in the community have suggested that traffic lights at the Charleston Road, East Meadow and Churchill crossings should be added to the west side of the tracks. Eastbound drivers get caught on the tracks when the light changes, they said.

The track watchers, who patrol the tracks to prevent suicides, said they have seen many harrowing close calls.

"It really was an accident waiting to happen," Grace Pariente said.

"I staffed Track Watch for an hour a week for a year, typically at 9 p.m. in the middle of the week. There were a handful of times when I witnessed a car on the tracks when a train was coming. They always had a car in front so they could not go forward. Some went backwards, one went around crossing the yellow line into oncoming traffic. One hit the gate as it was descending.

"But the most frightening one was a woman who kept going forward and backward, apparently panicked with nowhere to go. The light changed and cars ahead of her cleared out so she was able to go forward, but it was too close for comfort," Pariente said.

It "seems simple enough to put the stop light before the tracks, so there is never any need to squeeze into that area between the intersection and the tracks."

Susan Solomon agreed.

"I began monitoring the railroad-track areas at both Meadow and Charleston as part of Track Watch since the program began. Perhaps once an hour I saw a car slightly 'trapped' between Alma and the railroad tracks with the rear of the car dangerously close to the tracks," she said.

"This happens as part of a few common patterns. Cars cross the tracks at both Meadow and Charleston, proceeding towards the Alma intersection while the traffic light at Alma is green. 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.

"Drivers also cross over the tracks when the light at Alma has already turned red and there is another car stopped at the intersection. These drivers sometimes misgauge the amount of room between the car ahead and the tracks or sometimes appear oblivious as to whether or not there will be a safe amount of room.

"When the warning bells are not ringing, such cars will often remain with the rear of the car dangerously close to or even over the tracks waiting for the light to turn green. If the warning bells begin to ring, the trapped car driver often honks for the car in front to inch up into the intersection. The front car usually does inch up, but not always. The driver of the front car may not want to risk entering too far into the Alma intersection with the cross traffic passing by having a green light.

"Once I even saw a police car behind another car stopped at a red light at Alma with the back of the police car too close to the tracks. The police car waited in that dangerous position for several seconds. It then moved out of the way by squeezing past the car in front over the right curb and turning right on Alma," she said.

Some residents said the limit line at Charleston was moved back toward the tracks after the road was resurfaced. Even longtime residents have been caught unaware, they said. Others said the warning bells are quieter since the recent safety improvements, and motorists can't hear the bells when their windows are up and radios are on. By the time they realize a train is coming, the gates are down and the drivers are trapped.

Caltrain and Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority officials have not yet returned phone calls and emails seeking comment. More information will be added to this story today as it becomes available.

In 2007, a Sunnyvale driver was killed at the Meadow train crossing when her westbound car lurched in front of a northbound train.

Related story:

Train hits car in Palo Alto, kills out-of-town driver

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Frank
a resident of Ventura
on Apr 18, 2011 at 10:26 am

HSR or no HSR we need to separate the tracks from the street. Over or under but the streets and Caltrain are busier every year and moving the traffic light is only a weak solution.

And separating the crossings benefits everyone - pedestrians, bikes, cars, busses, trains and neighbors as the trains no longer need to blow their horns if there is no grade level crossing.

I'm sorry it has cost another life.

Frank


Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Apr 18, 2011 at 10:43 am

Heart-breaking and completely unnecessary. My deepest condolences to her loved ones. I am so very sorry for what she and her husband went through.


Like this comment
Posted by litebug
a resident of another community
on Apr 18, 2011 at 10:44 am

".. the warning bells are quieter since the recent safety improvements..."

You have to love irony to appreciate the use of the word "improvements".


Like this comment
Posted by Sorry, but...
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Apr 18, 2011 at 10:48 am

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]
People who do this are just not thinking. I see it, too - but it won't happen to me, because since I started driving at 14, I've known not to stop on tracks - and not to begin crossing tracks until the other side is clear - it's about common sense.

Again, tragic - but completely avoidable.


Like this comment
Posted by George
a resident of another community
on Apr 18, 2011 at 10:48 am

Another situation that I have seen is when there is suddenly a fire truck, ambulance or police car on Alma running their lights and siren. You can be heading east, following a car toward a just-changed green light and have the driver in front slam on their brakes despite the green light, trapping you. I never go onto the tracks unless there is room for me on the other side when there is a red light, but usually go across regardless when there is a green light. That is the only time I have been caught in danger.


Like this comment
Posted by Phyllis Munsey
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 18, 2011 at 10:50 am

I had a similar thing happen at Alma where it crosses at Menlo Park border. It was a dark and rainy night and heavy rush hour traffic. I was midway in a long string of cars waiting for the light at El Camino to change and for merging traffic to move forward. The light turned green and cars started to go--me in the midst of them--only to have the startup flow halt for congestion reasons and I was suddenly stuck, not totally on the tracks but with my cars front section forward enough that the crossarm hit my hood. I couldn't go forward or I would have been totally on the tracks and the cars in front of me didn't know what was happening--luckily the cars behind me were able to inch backward enough for me to be out of harms way. In retrospect I should have hit the horn and got everyone's attention, but at the time it was happening so fast....... Please add that intersection to the list of hazardous ones as the signal is so far from cars waiting on Alma that you really can't judge the traffic flow and it can be very deceiving.


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Posted by commuter
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 18, 2011 at 10:55 am

Until HSR builds the grade separations for these streets, the city should use its own money to:
1. prohibit right turns on red near any railroad track
2. move the traffic lights back so that cars are not allowed to stop in the small gap between the tracks and Alma

Neither of these changes should be very expensive and they will greatly improve safety at these crossings.


Like this comment
Posted by Enrique
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 18, 2011 at 10:59 am

If there is already a car stopped at a red light, across the tracks, common sense dictates that stopping behind that car (and on the tracks) is not a smart idea.

Common sense is one thing that God gave all of us; let us use it!!


Like this comment
Posted by commuter
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 18, 2011 at 11:00 am

Many commenters are saying the car driver was not smart for driving on top of the train tracks when the light was red. Perhaps that is true. However, in these days of rampant distracted driving, not everyone is being smart all the time. Witnesses are saying that a lot of drivers are somewhat confused about these intersections. A little inexpensive nannying from the city to improve road safety is not necessarily a bad thing.


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Posted by RT
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 18, 2011 at 11:02 am

Another danger at these intersections is when you are in a long line of cars turning west from Alma onto Charleston or Meadow and the train signal starts, the front cars stop in front of the crossing arm and the trailing cars are stuck in the intersection. (NOBODY in that line of cars is going to wait for the car in front of them to clear the tracks before entering the intersection.)
I believe it is imperative to have these left turn signals start their stop cycle BEFORE train bells/crossing arm cycle starts to ensure that the left turn signals cars have cleared the tracks.


Like this comment
Posted by Sheldon Kay
a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 18, 2011 at 11:10 am

High Speed Rail will solve this problem immediately. There won't be any more crossings!!!! No train horns needed either.


Like this comment
Posted by Rich
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 18, 2011 at 11:17 am

I used to be sure to always be in the rightmost lane when approaching a level crossing, so that if (despite all possible care for safety) I were to get stuck on the tracks, I could drive off the road to the right and be safe. Now, this last-ditch escape route no longer exists because of the new pedestrian gates — a "safety improvement" which seems ridiculous, because a pedestrian bent on suicide is simply going to walk around the gate and is not going to be deterred by threats of a fine.


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Posted by Never stop on the tracks
a resident of Gunn High School
on Apr 18, 2011 at 11:29 am

I crossed the tracks every single day for 4 years to get to Gunn and it was pounded into me from a very young age to never, ever stop on the tracks. There have been accidents similar to this over the years at many intersections. It is not the first of it's kind and it probably won't be the last.

I am very sorry for the family. This was such a tragic accident.

Parents, please teach your children to never stop on the tracks. These accidents are easily avoidable. Kids are not always born with common sense. We need to teach them.


Like this comment
Posted by Mayor of Mayberry
a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 18, 2011 at 11:39 am

Grade separation between cars and trains is the obvious solution to all over the world - at least outside Palo Alto. Trains and cars sharing road space is simply defective by design. No combination of signs, lights, bells changes that simple fact.

Please publish the number of pedestrian and automobile collisions that happen on the grade separated Cal Train tracks in San Carlos.


Like this comment
Posted by Adrianus Schrauwen
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 18, 2011 at 11:44 am

Mark the pavement for one car only within the safety zone and add awarning sign "ONE CAR ONLY"


Like this comment
Posted by Burton
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 18, 2011 at 11:53 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


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Posted by robit noops
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Apr 18, 2011 at 11:59 am

It is up to drivers to obey the laws of the road, one of which is to not stop on train tracks. I do not want my tax dollars to go towards unnecessary "improvements". The train tracks are fine as they are. Motorists need to be aware of their surroundings.


Like this comment
Posted by Michele
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Apr 18, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Don't like all these unkind comments about the driver - haven't any of you ever been in a strange place? You don't know all the idiosyncrasies of driving there. I myself have been driving along on Charleston only to have the bells go off and the gate go down behind me while I was crossing the track when it had been perfectly clear when I entered. If the person in front of you does not go you are stuck.


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Posted by ChrisC
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 18, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Obviously some improvements should be made. Out-of-towners probably do not know what they are getting into by advancing with traffic across the tracks. Maybe people from Indiana thought these were freight train tracks, which usually do not have the frequent trains like the commuter trains. However, I have never, ever in any circumstances in my long life stopped my car on a RR track.


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Posted by Trains no more
a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Apr 18, 2011 at 12:19 pm

What are trains still doing here? They should be at a museum; trains are obsolete and very dangerous, they kill people in accidents and suicides, generate tons of pollution, millions of dollars lost in productivity due to traffic congestion and wasted time they cause, the pollution that all these idling cars waiting for the train to go by generate, and of course the noise. Remove the train tracks and replace them with a bicycle lane, something more environmentally friendly and less primitive – this is Silicon Valley 2011, not the wild west of a hundred fifty years ago…


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Posted by Palo Parent
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Apr 18, 2011 at 12:23 pm

If I found myself stuck on the tracks because the car in front of me stopped suddenly without reason, I would very "gently" push them forward or enough out of the way with my car. Anything that would be the result of that action would be a mere insurance detail as opposed to the alternative of getting hit by a train.


Like this comment
Posted by Patrick Santiago
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 18, 2011 at 12:27 pm

So towards this article and this tragedy I feel like most drivers in Palo Alto are pretty incompetent about the traffic safety rules and I mean EVERYONE, from police officers that don't pull drivers over on Middlefield road when the drivers go about 10 miles over the speed limit during school hours, Drivers not using signals and the worst obviously people who think they can beat the Railroad Crossing arms. I've lived in this town for my whole life and this is probably the second time i've seen someone get hit by a train under these circumstances (the first time was when I was like 10 years old and the person was racing there bike through and had gotten her bike tire caught).....anyways im just saying some people need to be more cautious and I know this was a tragic ending but seriously adding more safety to our railroad system isn't going to help us, I think driving smarter is going to do us just as fine.


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Posted by Why stop on the tracks?
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 18, 2011 at 12:40 pm

We lived in Minnesota and there were tracks which had no crossing gates. The tracks were no longer in use.

There were also tracks which were freight train tracks (as mentioned by above poster) which would move slowly while crossing freeways.

The driver was probably unaware of frequent trains or just not thinking, being new to the area.

Most of us have been in a hurry at one point in life and have had near-misses with traffic accidents but drive away unscathed. It's a shame that luck was not with her.


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Posted by daniel
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 18, 2011 at 1:16 pm

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]
There is also a problem of habitual red light running on Alma. The green turning lights are short to begin with, and the red light running on Alma shorten the time drivers have to turn off Alma. This must increases the confusion and sense of urgency to turn no matter what.


Like this comment
Posted by Kevin
a resident of another community
on Apr 18, 2011 at 1:21 pm

"Trains no more," your "obsolete" comment is way off base.

Trains are, in fact, about the most efficient means of moving people and goods you'll find. Trouble is, if you want to see truly modern trains, you pretty much need to leave the country. France, Japan, Germany, and China are leading the way these days. We're so far behind, at least in terms of passenger train technology and usage, that we can't see those guys for their dust. Meanwhile, we stew about traffic congestion. Hmmmm ...

That said, we do have a very robust freight rail system. Look up Union Pacific, BNSF, Norfolk Southern and the like.

Trains are still very useful ... the main problem would seem to be the public's thinking about railroads is stuck in the 19th century.


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Posted by Alma_commuter
a resident of Los Altos
on Apr 18, 2011 at 1:59 pm

My sympathy goes out to the husband and the local family who are suffering the loss of this poor lady.

I too dislike all the comments criticizing this driver. Please remember that she was from out of state. If you have never driven outside of California, then you may not know that traffic patterns and driving styles differ GREATLY across the country. For instance, it is common in many places for cars to follow each other closely through intersections (a bumper apart) and for all waiting cars to trail through a yellow light. I think yellow lights are even timed longer in some states so everyone assumes they can get through. Here yellow lights are quite short, and drivers stop at them abruptly. I don't know if this was the circumstances that led to this tragedy but it is just one example of how a person unaccustomed to the local roads could be misled.


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Posted by Kevin
a resident of another community
on Apr 18, 2011 at 2:00 pm

That last sentence of mine didn't turn out the way I wanted it to. I meant " ... the public's *image of* railroads is stuck in the 19th century." Which I think it is, given that steam locomotives are still prevalent in the public memory (railroads mostly retired them in the 1940s and 1950s), and also given that railroading is still derided as a 19th-century technology despite advances here and abroad. (Automobiles are also a 19th-century technology, but no one ever calls them that for some reason.)


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Posted by robit noops
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Apr 18, 2011 at 2:20 pm

Looking at images of grade separations online, it seems like a huge eyesore. It would probably make the train much louder to have it elevated as well. Now that I see it, I highly disapprove of a grade separation for caltrain!!!!


Like this comment
Posted by Daily Caltrain Rider
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 18, 2011 at 2:24 pm

Kevin, you're way off base with your statement that "Trains are, in fact, about the most efficient means of moving people and goods you'll find." This is nonsense.

A terrible day on the freeway is faster, door-to-door, than a great day on Caltrain. But because a glitch anywhere on the Caltrain system disrupts all the trains, great days are rare and terrible days happen at least monthly. If you factor in opportunity costs and subsidies, a ride on Caltrain costs at least $50/trip - an order of magnitude greater than a private automobile for the same journey.

Trains make sense for freight where there's no start-stop every two miles, and where half-hour or even two-hour delays are immaterial. But for commuters with widely dispersed origins and destinations, trains are the wrong answer.


Like this comment
Posted by iron horses
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 18, 2011 at 2:35 pm

I love trains and have ridden trains all over the world. Usually the railroad stations are located on the edge of cities and do not travel through residential neighborhoods or commercial areas except underground. I wouldn't be surprised if Caltrain has the only track in the whole world that runs exclusively through residential and commercial areas.

I have lived here awhile and am well attuned to the trains' behavior, but it is confusing, If you're traveling on Charleston or Meadow across the tracks and you see the light turn green, you may not realize that the light is only going to be green for a few seconds. You may not expect that the car in front of you is going to cross the tracks and then just stop, leaving you stranded. I have learned never to cross the tracks unless the space on the other side is clear, but how can you expect someone who is not familiar with our traffic to understand these idiosyncrasies?

Just because Caltrain has existed in its current incarnation for 150 years does not mean that it needs to remain an above-ground train, especially as our area continues to grow and grow. Eventually we will have to put it underground. Or just let the commuter train disappear, as the streetcars did, and replace it with a more modern, modular technology that serves our area better.


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Posted by Que
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 18, 2011 at 3:45 pm

I wonder if anyone has ever thought of other potential danger that would be much more severe than this. I mean what if it happened to be a heavy truck trapped on the track? It can cause a fast running train POSSIBLY to be derailed. The train this time was reportedly at FULL SPEED which was about 80 mph. That said, in fact I feel I was lucky because I was driving on Alma near that area at that time.


Like this comment
Posted by Larry
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 18, 2011 at 3:51 pm

As a 5+ year resident of the neighborhood, I have to add my voice to those who are sympathetic to the out-of-town victim. Not only are the crossings confusing, different drivers have different methods for dealing with the confusion, and you don't get to choose who you're behind or in front of.

I've been stuck on the tracks behind someone stopping "too early" for a yellow, and I've been honked at for probably doing the same. I could easily see how someone new to the area wouldnt even notice the approaching crossing until they were already over them, or otherwise caught in the flow of traffic.

What a terrible situation.


Like this comment
Posted by Rose
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Apr 18, 2011 at 3:51 pm

First I would like to express my condolences to the family of the driver. I'm very sorry for your loss.

These intersections (Charleston/Alma and Meadow/Alma) need to be reexamined. I near both intersections and I can see how drivers could unknowingly stop on the tracks and not hear the train.

If you are driving a late model car with the windows up and the radio playing or if you are in an involved conversation with someone, you might not hear the bells ringing. I know that I have stopped for the traffic signal near the gates and when I have my radio playing and the car windows closed, I have not noticed that a train is coming until the I see the traffic gates closing and the lights flashing. I literaly have not heard anything until the train is less than 50 feet away (and then it's the train that I'm hearing, not the the railroad crossing). Now if these changes (the gates lowering, lights flashing, etc) were taking place *behind* me, I can see how easily it would be for drivers not to notice a train was approaching.

I think that there needs to be a visual cue to indicate that a train is approaching when the green light changes (for traffic to cross from west to east). This will inform the drivers that have already crossed the tracks (or who are on the tracks already) that they need to clear the intersection. I don't think that this it's a wise idea to stop on the tracks, but I do think that this might be an interim solution.


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Posted by Smarter
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 18, 2011 at 4:12 pm

They don't have to move the lights at all. Just put a sensor in the road in the danger zone and keep the traffic light green until there are no more cars above the sensor.

This is a $10,000 solution and doesn't require anyone to move anything. It could be implemented in a week.

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 18, 2011 at 4:41 pm

Wow Iron horses. You and I must have been on different trains in Europe because the ones I ride go right throught the middle of towns and cities although often the trains are in trenches so if you are riding one you don't know what kind of terrain you are riding through.

In fact I have even been in a home that has high speed rail running about 50 yards away and discovered that there is a feeling of sensing the trains going by rather than hearing them.

What I would say that is the Bay Area would be an ideal place for innovating new transit technology with its 2 way commute areas and no central hub for commuting. I would love to see a monorail or suspension type people moving system, but I fear that politics of all shapes and sizes would ever prevent it from happening here. We will always be the last player in transit advancement innovations.


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Posted by stacey
a resident of another community
on Apr 18, 2011 at 4:44 pm

Please be sensitive to the victim, Judy Goldblatt and her husband Larry. They are long-time friends of our family, and these negative comments and speculations about her are hurtful and unnecessary. Please stay focused on the issue of the intersection.


Like this comment
Posted by Kevin
a resident of another community
on Apr 18, 2011 at 4:59 pm

Daily Caltrain Rider: Actually, I think I'm pretty solidly on base. One railroad track can handle more people than one lane of road. You'll note I didn't exactly sing Caltrain's praises in its present form; in fact, I made the point that we've been left in the dust by plenty of other countries in terms of passenger service. I do see where your're coming from -- I once lived within walking distance of the Millbrae station, worked near the Palo Alto station, yet had to drive on account of working odd hours that didn't mesh with the schedule.

I did, however, fail to mention one thing that goes hand in hand with improved local passenger rail: smarter, less sprawly land-use decisions. I'd better stop there, as I'm in danger of veering off topic. (And I won't even get started on road subsidies, which are considerable. Nor the costs of operating an automobile -- not just gas, but also insurance, maintenance, registration, parking and depreciation.)

Iron horses: I think the reason we have railroads running through towns in the U.S. and on the outskirts mainly elsewhere is this: In the case of the western U.S., and this is certainly true of the Peninsula, the railroad came first, and the towns grew up around it. There wasn't much, townwise, between The City and S.J. when the San Francisco & San Jose Railroad (earliest ancestor of Caltrain) was built in 1863-64. But the presence of efficient rail transportation encouraged settlement on the Peninsula. This is why I find calls to kill the railroad that made the towns' existence possible in the first place rather interesting.

Also: I don't think Caltrain is hardly the only rail line surrounded by urbanity. Look at the lines radiating out of Chicago. Many are rather solidly built up (as with the Peninsula, towns grew up around the rails that enabled their existence), and most of these have commuter trains, Amtrak trains, freight trains or some combination of these. More rail traffic than the Peninsula has, actually.


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 18, 2011 at 5:06 pm

If this is the case that there used to be space for 2 cars between the tracks and the redlight and there is now space for only 1, which I believe since I have never been sure there was enough space for 2, then there should be a sign put up ASAP, even a cardboard danger warning sign until a permanent sign is made. Since the article indicates that there have been many near misses witnessed and the headline states that it is an accident waiting to happen, then these signs must be put up today before another accident.

It is true that these crossings are difficult if you don't know them, but if you are used to them and they change, then they must be publicized and warnings must be posted to indicate this change.


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Posted by Alice Smith
a resident of Green Acres
on Apr 18, 2011 at 5:22 pm

This morning a man stopped going east at Alma, and another woman in a large car (?Honda Accord) stopped with her rear wheels on the track. The driver in front, got out, yelled at the woman driver (in her 60s) pointing her finger at her and describing just what had happened at that spot last week. What on earth was she thinking about. I turned left, following her on Alma. She drove along, patting her hair and then picked up speed going about 45 miles per hour. Wonder what lessons she learned, if any, this morning.


Like this comment
Posted by Scared of Trains
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 18, 2011 at 5:23 pm

Ive always been scared of trains since i was a child. The minute i hear the sound of the train warning bells, i can assure you, my car is no where near the tracks! Ive always been very very cautious when driving near train tracks. Someone made a comment that high speed rail is the answer?! How ludicrous. It will only make the problem worse, come on, use your head! I think obviously a very serious study needs to happen immediately to stop these horrible accidents from happening. My thoughts and prayers to the family of this woman.


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Posted by narnia
a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 18, 2011 at 5:50 pm

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Iron horses must be on another planet- even without speaking of Europe, all trains in New Jersey (new jersey transit) go right through the middle of towns where stations are located. So does Amtrak in ALL of the eastern corridor, Septa trains, Patco, all the metro lines in suburban DC (plus Union station) that go through Virginia, MARC in maryland, Long Island railroad, and I could be here all day naming them , ( Union Station in LA is right downtown, no? )

Some people claim that they followed other drivers who had the green light to cross Alma
only to be trapped when the light turned red and the car in front of them stopped. As my mother warned me many a time of the dangers of blindly following others " and if you just follow your friends and they are heading for a precipice you would too, right ?" she said. I got it. The only drawback of staying put on the west side of tracks is the danger that stupid drivers may bump you from behind and throw you on to the tracks, so I stay on the west of the marked box .

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


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Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 18, 2011 at 5:53 pm

SteveU is a registered user.

A few years ago, I had a harrowing experience at Whipple and El Camino.
I was stopped about the third car back from the crossing. We got the Green and started forward.
Then a Fire truck with siren came down ECR and the cars (as required by law) stopped in front of me.
Then the arms came down. There was no place to Go Back, to the Side, because of dividers. The car in front moved as soon as possible after the fire trucks cleared the intersection.
1 fire could have resulted in at least 4 cars and a train collision.


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Posted by narnia
a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 18, 2011 at 6:20 pm

Steve U, the only reason for a possible accident with you trapped on the tracks is that you didn't wait until you had clearance on the other side . . Also, the law does NOT require someone to pull over and on the side to let emergency vehicles pass IF that puts that someone in imminent danger.


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Posted by ODB
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 18, 2011 at 6:41 pm

<< If you are driving a late model car with the windows up and the radio playing or if you are in an involved conversation with someone, you might not hear the bells ringing. >>

That's no excuse, no excuse at all. The law (California Vehicle Code) explicitly states you may not cross the tracks unless there is space for your vehicle on the other side. Windows being up, radios playing, having conversations and not hearing the bells have nothing to do with it.


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Posted by robit noops
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Apr 18, 2011 at 6:49 pm

I always look both ways to see if there is a train, you can see them long before the bells and gate. Drivers are irresponsible and dangerous.

Late model cars? Radios? If you are driving, especially preparing to make a turn, you shouldn't be so involved in any conversation that it distracts you. Thats how pedestrians get hit.


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Posted by Why stop on the tracks?
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 18, 2011 at 6:52 pm

Sounds like she was a wonderful person: Web Link


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Posted by Palo Verde
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 18, 2011 at 6:56 pm

I really think the death of this woman had to do with the "improvements" that they did on this site. First of all the bells are softer, and I am wondering at what point did she hear the bells, if she did hear them, or did she just know she was in danger because of the train approaching. Her husband is the only one who knows. I am sure he can suit Caltrain and he will win. This improvements should had never happen. They are very confusing to pedestrians. I have seen pedestrians going on the street instead of going through the gates that they put, because it is confusing. They should take them off. They are also confusing to bikers (students). This is another incident waiting to happen.


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Posted by JerryL
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 18, 2011 at 8:03 pm

I was horrified and filled with sympathy for the poor woman and even more so for her husband.

I found myself in a dangerous situation at one of these train crossings recently and I have lived here over 40 years. But I badly misjudged the space available between the tracks and Alma. The "ONE CAR ONLY" suggestion really hit the nail on the head. I thought at the time that something really should be done, either with wild paint striping or Botts Dots patterns or something to indicate that there is only safe space for 1 car. I was surprised to have made such a mistake. I don't know if the space available was recently shortened by some changes or not. But the fact remains that, if long time residents can misjudge things so dangerously, than the poor out of town driver has even less chance of avoiding disaster.

These intersections are potential death traps and people need to be warned over and over about the potential danger of following any car into that danger zone.


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Posted by AliciaLuisa
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Apr 18, 2011 at 8:28 pm

I think part of the problem is that the car space between East Meadow (2 cars) and Charleston (1 car) also compounds the problem. I think the ONE CAR ONLY on both Charleston and East Meadow facing east is a great idea and a relatively inexpensive solution for now until a better, hopefully underground, intersection is complete. I have been caught on the track, as a long time Palo Alto resident, at Charleston when the car in front of me I think is turning does not turn before the light change. It is scary to be in that position whether or not a train is coming.


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Posted by Rose
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Apr 18, 2011 at 8:37 pm

<ODB> As I said earlier, it's not wise to stop on the tracks. I agree with you, in a perfect world all drivers would observe the railway crossing and they would wait until traffic is clear before proceeding through the crossing.

But honestly, if you have seen a driver show poor judgment (or just being naive) and stop on the tracks, have you seen *the following* drivers leave room for the first driver to shift into reverse and drive off the tracks? * I have only seen other drivers roll up to the crossing gate and show no mercy on the driver who made an error in judgment. If it happened to me and I got caught on the tracks, and I didn't know about the traffic signals, I can seem myself panicking and feeling caught in a trap.

*also if you missed the opportunity to go in reverse off the tracks, you can't move backwards because the gate has also blocked your way.

Judy Goldblatt, I'm very sorry for your loss. From what I've read, you were and execeptional human being. Again, my condolences to the family.


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Posted by TD
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 18, 2011 at 9:29 pm

I hope that when that Eshoo and Simitian propose [1] a high speed rail "within the existing right-of-way, at or below grade", one day after this tragic accident, that they really mean below, and not at grade.

[1] Web Link


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Posted by narnia
a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 18, 2011 at 9:41 pm

Bbout 20 years ago a young student biking to school with his friends tried to beat the train and lost his life. He misjudged the train's speed. He lived with his mother in Palo Alto and was an only child. The parents were devastated as were friends and the school community.
Many people at the time commented and wrote to the newspapers that if there had been gates that close automatically and don't allow passing through the life of this young boy (I can't remember his name any longer) would have been spared. Now, there are gates and people complain that there are gates.

The problem with many suggestions is that they ignore the harm the proposed "solutions" do when they interact with other "solutions". There is no "improvement" that can singly take care of the "crossing " problem other than "DON"T CROSS UNLESS THE OTHER SIDE IS CLEAR" stamped in big letters for those who are unable to remember such elementary
precaution. Many accidents of any sort are caused by poor judgement, cognitive confusion
or disregard for the rules. The two first happen because we are human. It's not a matter of fault or blame, it's simply a matter of fact and I am sure we all have had episodes of that kind. It's not Caltrain or Palo Alto's fault no matter how nice and accomplished the driver in question was. Palo Alto and many other communities were built around the railroad well before our time. So, there is no fault, only responsibility for the accident and it looks as if
the driver (unless suddenly sick) paid a high price for what was a very avoidable situation.
Sad.


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Posted by Misha
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 18, 2011 at 9:58 pm

My condolences to the family and especially the loving husband of many years for such an unexpected and sorrowful tragedy.

Mistakes and accidents happen, there is no need to render such harsh judgment. Not everyone who is trapped, especially if unfamiliar with the area, can react without panicking.

It sounds from the first-person observations of the Trackwatch volunteers who so faithfully and compassionately stand watch for each of us, that this was not the first and only driver caught on the tracks, for any number of reasons.

This being the case, Caltrains and the City should look to see what can be done to avoid this situation; such as, marking the lines further back from the tracks and increasing the margin of time between when the bells ring and the arms go down so allow even a few more seconds for a driver to react. Increasing the warning time would allow us to potentially save a pedestrian on the tracks, too.


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Posted by Greg Kruger
a resident of Mountain View
on Apr 18, 2011 at 11:23 pm

The rule is simple. Train Wins.

we will feel sorry for these people, it is our right and our duty as compasionate people. However, Train wins. There is no excuse such as has been expressed regarding we are a distracted people. Train Wins. If you cannot cross the tracks and clear a train, even if there is a Fire Engine approaching, you do not cross the tracks.

I don't want people to die unneccessarily. However, nothing needs to be changed, people need to get a clue, Train Wins, never ever, ever, ever proceed onto tracks that you cannot clear, YOU as the driver have complete control of this at each of the intersections described above.

If you, do, well, that is how the Darwin Awards were born.

Train Wins.


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Posted by jsc
a resident of another community
on Apr 18, 2011 at 11:34 pm

I pass those intersections daily during commute hours on Alma. Every time I'm caught at one of the affected stop lights, I watch the cars do that awkward dance with the arm and each other while the train approaches at that deadly speed. It's not surprising that an out-of-towner was the victim because it's such a confusing mess.


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Posted by What Is So Confusing About the Intersection?
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 19, 2011 at 12:03 am

Where's the "Like" button for Greg Kruger's posting?


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Posted by Nora Charles
a resident of Stanford
on Apr 19, 2011 at 5:19 am

I feel just dreadful for the poor woman and her husband. It is very easy for those familiar with this intersection to pass judgement, but put yourself in her shoes. She probably got confused (with what sounds like a very dangerous stop) and panicked. It no doubt all happened so quickly.

The lack of compassion in some posts is appalling.


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Posted by David
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 19, 2011 at 8:10 am

Kudos for Greg Kruger's post is not harsh but so true. I have to say that Rengstorff crossing has a serious set back where the traffic light is well before the tracks. Palo Alto traffic engineers and Cal Train should consider something similar.


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Posted by Elrod
a resident of Professorville
on Apr 19, 2011 at 8:59 am

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


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Posted by Trucks Watcher
a resident of Palo Verde School
on Apr 19, 2011 at 9:22 am

I watched the tracks this morning, at the busy time when parents and students are rushing to school. I was shocked to see that there were kids biking, and they almost got hit by train and by cars. They were coming from the direction to JLS heading towards El Camino Real. They waited by the side of the cross guard. The light gave the sign that it was ok to cross (it gives 16 seconds). The guards allows them to go as long as there is still time. Well, only about three students have passed the trucks when all of a sudden the bells went on, and the arms went down. There were confused students riding their bikes some rushed to completely pass the tracks other was almost hit by the arm. Everyone had to stop all of a sudden, and one girl yelled to her friends to wait for her, she was almost going to take off so she would not get separated. Their time to cross was cut by the incoming train and the bells. There were a lot of bikes waiting behind the arm for the chance to pass, all crowded because the bike like is very narrow, the arm went up, but before the kids could go back on their bikes the cars started to move and more cars came. It was awful and scary to watch our students in danger. I am afraid that if Caltrain does not synchronized the time with the bells we might loose students either hit by a train or by cars. Before this improvements the students could go on the sidewalk to clear Alma, and so they would not be hit by cars. Now they can't do that. One tried and another student told her not do do it, it was just for pedestrians. There were more than thirty five students at one point. They need wider space. Also this morning on Churchill and Alma, there were two young men running, and when they got to the tracks, they did not know what to do, so they went down the street to cross the tracks. Then they stop to read signs, and they still could not figure out if it was ok to pass the yellow gates or not. I could tell that these people spoke English well, but still the side gates and yellow gates make it very confusing for pedestrians. Today there was a bike accident at Louis and Oregon, I hope Caltrain does something about this problem before someone gets hurt.


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Posted by DZ
a resident of Terman Middle School
on Apr 19, 2011 at 10:15 am

Thanks Trucks Watcher for spending time to go there and see the real situation. It is dangerous there. Everyday. It is unnecessary burden and stress for people live around it or has to across the track. It is a deadly spot of the city of Palo Alto, no mater how you span it. Although I don’t have the data, Palo Alto got to be high on the list of the small cities that have most people killed by trains in the whole white world. More will be killed if we don’t do anything about it. I hope more people in Palo Alto will act like you, to take action, to help. More and more people are ready to help if something could be organized. While the city leaders have their eyes busy on trash and landfill, someone needs to act to save people’s lives of this sick city. Can we request something like Caltrain to separate the grade? Can Caltrain be sued for all those killings?


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Posted by ODB
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 19, 2011 at 11:14 am

Sue CalTrain and win? What are you going to sue them for? They were operating their train in compliance with the law so they have no liability, and the driver of the car was in violation of the CVC for entering the crossing when she did.

If the city of Palo Alto wants to "do something" they could station a couple of PAPD officers to these intersections and ticket people who violate the vehicle code by entering the crossing when there is no room for them on the opposite side and thus get stuck on the tracks, approaching train or no. I guarantee you the effort would more than pay for itself.


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Posted by Jacqui Worden
a resident of Woodside
on Apr 19, 2011 at 11:37 am

I wholeheartedly endorse this article in the Palo Alto Weekly and cannot understand why attention has not been paid to the dangerous stuation at Charleston Caltrain crossing. Those who are local know how to handle the unsafe crossing but for newcomers it does indeed present an accident waiting to happen. I know. I was lucky. I had due warning when the barriers hit my SUV. I had followed traffic only to find that the lights the other side of the track had changed and I was marooned. My good fortune was space behind me to reverse. A very scary experience.

I believe it could improve matters if the traffic light was located before the crossing.


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Posted by DZ
a resident of Terman Middle School
on Apr 19, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Here is something I just found out, not verified, but...

"the latest in a grim statistic: 57 people were run over by trains in California in 2010. The runner up is Texas with only 23 trespassing fatalities. "

Only 57 people killed by trains in whole CA in 2010. 16 of them are from our area by Caltrain? Around 30%!!! This is alarming. Congratulations Palo Alto! Can we call you the "Train Fatality Capital of the World"?

Don't say Caltrain operate their trains in compliance with the law. They should not operate this way in this area at all. Caltrain knew about the problem, they are not doing much to correct the problem.


Web Link


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Posted by Evan
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 19, 2011 at 12:43 pm

Please, please, please grade-separate these tracks. Above or below ground. Road above or below. Whatever it takes. Caltrain, HSR or both, it doesn't matter. We can't have a great transit system that poses such risks.


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Posted by Kevin
a resident of another community
on Apr 19, 2011 at 2:13 pm

DZ:

There's only so much Caltrain (or anyone else, for that matter) can do about people's behavior.

A train on its tracks is, by definition, where it's supposed to be, doing what it's supposed to be doing. Gates, lights, bells, and train whistles/bells exist for a reason. If you willfully disregard these, YOU own the consequences.

Example: the guy in the video in your link, who hopped the gate and nearly got himself killed. That's not the railroad's problem. That's HIS problem. They warned him, and he chose to ignore the warning -- and nearly paid the ultimate price for his impatience.


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Posted by A Concerned Resident
a resident of Meadow Park
on Apr 19, 2011 at 2:15 pm

Reading so many of these comments makes me wonder what our society has become? Has so many residents of this city become so addled minded that they find the Charleston Road railroad crossing to be confusing?

Folks, the railroad crossing in question is pretty straight-forward, there's nothing confusing about it. The problems observed by the track watchers are simply caused by inattentive drivers which our society is now plagued with, or by people in such a great rush to get somewhere, they disregard common sense and do foolish things that place their lives in danger.

My heartfelt condolences goes out to Judy Goldblatt's family, friends and to especially her husband. It must have been horrific for him to see his beloved wife not be able to escape from the path of the train in time.

But I don't blame neither Caltrain nor the City of Palo Alto for this accident. It wasn't their fault, the railroad crossing is about as safe as it can be. The responsibility lies with the drivers to remain vigilant when crossing any railroad tracks, including this one.

There are still unanswered questions regarding the specifics of this accident. Why did her husband have enough time to escape, but she did not? Why wasn't she able to drive forward (since the eastbound Charleston Traffic Signals turns green once the gates start coming down to permit cars to get off the track). Was she distracted by something right before the gates started to come down?

Those questions will probably be answered in due time, but for now let's just take the opportunity to offer our condolences to the family and their friends and also take time to remind each other that we must always stay alert and pay close attention anytime we cross any railroad tracks, here or elsewhere. And don't be in too much of a hurry to do so in that one compromises ones and other people's safety in doing so.


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 19, 2011 at 2:23 pm

What does worry me is the number of bikes crossing and no space for them to wait. TruckWatcher put it well. Kids are using Meadow, Charleston and Churchill in great numbers and there is not enough space for them to wait when the barriers go down. I really feel that this is another accident waiting to happen and it scares me.

I think that some authority should be watching to see how these kids manage in the high commute hour and doing some changes with them in mind.


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Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Apr 19, 2011 at 3:16 pm


After the driver got himself killed on the Whipple crossing in Redwood City, I noticed a few subsequent police enforcement actions to bust people stopping on the tracks. Predictably, after a short while, and despite the signs forbidding it, the enforcement stopped and motorists went back to routinely stopping on the tracks with apparent impunity.

The law, CVC 2526, applies to both railroad crossings and marked crosswalks: Web Link


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Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Apr 19, 2011 at 3:28 pm

Whoops, I mistyped the California Vehicle Code section.

It should be CVC 22526, see it online here: Web Link


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Posted by ODB
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 19, 2011 at 6:46 pm

My question for the armchair experts: Exactly what law does CalTrain violate by operating its trains in Palo Alto? If you're going to pin legal liability for this accident on CalTrain, surely you must know which law they allegedly violate. Please share your legal wisdom with us.

The city of Palo Alto is responsible for the intersection and there are improvements which can and should be made immediately (move the limit line to its former location and move the traffic signal). But again, please tell us how the city or CalTrain are in non-compliance with any laws, if that be the case, so that these alleged violations can be addressed.

The sign that is prominent in this picture says it all:

Web Link

BTW both husband and wife had the same amount of time to escape from the vehicle as they were both in it together.


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Posted by Paly Mom
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 19, 2011 at 11:58 pm

I drove by the Charleston crossing on the way home tonight. The cars facing East were stopped at a red light and I saw someone carefully back up so that they were no longer on the tracks. (There was already a car in the space next to Alma, so the second car should have waited anyway) Fortunately, there was room to do this because traffic was fairly light.

I am glad people are being a little more careful. I wonder how long they/we will remain cautious before they/we go back to the usual heedless behavior.


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Posted by ThinkingAllowed
a resident of Meadow Park
on Apr 20, 2011 at 1:43 pm

Common sense would say, don't stop on the track, if you can't clear the track, stay behind the arm. These accidents are usually the fault of the car or bike or pedestrian.


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Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Apr 20, 2011 at 4:02 pm

Not only does "common sense" say it ... black-on-white signs posted at the crossings say it, and the California Vehicle Code (and probably every other state's Vehicle Code) says it too: Web Link

22526(d) A driver of a vehicle shall not enter a railroad or rail transit crossing, notwithstanding any official traffic control device or signal indication to proceed, unless there is sufficient space on the other side of the railroad or rail transit crossing to accommodate the vehicle driven and any railway vehicle, including, but not limited to, a train, trolley, or city transit vehicle.


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Posted by robit noops
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Apr 21, 2011 at 11:36 am

If people are worried about kids at the crossings, I have a solution. The school and parents should inform them that the train tracks are dangerous and that they need to use common sense when crossing them. Problem solved.


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 21, 2011 at 12:05 pm

Robit

I think we all know that!

What has to be understood is that there are often 50 or so kids on bikes or on foot waiting between the tracks and the traffic on Alma and a tiny waiting area.

I would like the Weekly reporter and photographer to stand at Churchill on a weekday morning between 8.00 and 8.20 am and report back on how many trains, how many kids, how many bikes and what happens. I think the Weekly publishing this data would be taken note of.


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Posted by Shoshana
a resident of another community
on Apr 21, 2011 at 8:49 pm

Judy was a wonderful person. She was a wife,sister, mother and grandmother. Please let her rest in peace.


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Posted by Terri
a resident of another community
on May 2, 2011 at 5:57 am

[Post removed.]


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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