Moving the traffic lights at Caltrain crossings in Palo Alto -- at Charleston Road, East Meadow Drive and Churchill Avenue -- from the east side of the tracks to the west side to minimize potential vehicle jams on the tracks "definitely is feasible," Jaime Rodriguez, Palo Alto's chief transportation official, said Monday.
Rodriguez was responding to inquiries posed by several residents after Friday's (April 15) fatal crash between a Caltrain train and a motorist.
Judy Goldblatt, an Indiana resident, was killed after a northbound express train traveling at 79 mph struck her rental car after it became stuck on the tracks at the Charleston Road crossing.
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 visiting her sister in Palo Alto.
Many longtime residents said conditions at the tracks have been a fatal accident waiting to happen.
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.
But Rodriguez said the limit line remains the same as it was prior to the 2005-2006 restriping project.
"Based on the historical information we could find, I don't think that the limit line was ever actually moved," he said.
Historical photos compared against Google Maps online show the limit lines are all in the same spot, he said.
Greta Helm, VTA chief external affairs officer, said the warning bells were recently changed from mechanical to electronic signals, but they conform to California Public Utilities Commission specifications.
"I do not know if there is a difference in decibel level, but perhaps it sounds different due to the change in how the sound is created," she wrote in an email.
At some crossings, additional or relocated flashers were designed with the motorist in mind, she said.
"At the Charleston intersection, the project ... replaced railroad-gate flashing lights with new LED units to improve visibility. The sidewalks were shifted away from the roadway to improve pedestrian circulation and safety.
"The project did not include modifications to roadway configuration or associated traffic signals. Changes to the relationship between the railroad tracks, railroad gates and traffic controls at or near the intersection were not part of the project," she said.
All railroad operations at public crossings in California are regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). For all crossing modifications associated with the Caltrain Safety Improvement Project, VTA and the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board ("Caltrain") receive approval from the CPUC with concurrence from the local municipality and the Union Pacific Railroad, she said.
Some volunteers 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. 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.
Volunteer 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.
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," she said.
Rodriguez said the lights can be moved, but that entails a different kind of signal configuration, which includes a presignal, he said.
Presignals are timed to allow cars to get over the tracks and still make the light to cross Alma Street or turn right, but would eliminate the right turn on red, he said.
"It would have an operational impact," he said.
Two gates, one in each direction that are currently in place, would also be replaced with "quad" gates, which are four that block access across the tracks all the way across on both sides, if the presignal design were installed, he said.
Engineers would also have to take into consideration any visibility issues of traffic at Alma, especially for people attempting to turn right from the southbound lane onto East Meadow or Churchill, he said.
He cautioned that a presignal 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 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, he 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.
But 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 2012-2013, 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 involving a vehicle caught under the crossing's arms.
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.