Rail crossing light changes are 'definitely feasible'

Alternative gates and moving traffic signals to the west side of Caltrain's tracks could be accomplished, city transportation official says

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.

Related story:

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

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

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Like this comment
Posted by Jon
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Apr 19, 2011 at 5:17 pm

These intersections are confusing even to drivers who've grown up in Palo Alto and are familiar with trains (I'm one of 'em), and frankly they're a disgrace. Moving the traffic lights west would obviously solve the problem, and what's the downside of it?

The current intersection designs are a relic of when traffic was much lighter, people were more courteous, and the commuter trains were slower. Now, they're just a magnet for death, and for litigation.

Pull your socks up, Palo Alto. The trucks should be rolling to make these changes tomorrow.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 19, 2011 at 5:24 pm

Don't forget the bicycles too, there needs to be enough space for a flood of bikes and pedestrians to wait during school commute time - particularly at Churchill.

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Apr 19, 2011 at 5:29 pm

I sent the following letter to many Bay Area elected officials about safety issues on Caltrain property, and public spaces in/around Caltrain crossings--

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Spokker
a resident of another community
on Apr 19, 2011 at 10:58 pm

Bottom line: Never, ever stop on the tracks or block an intersection (these involve the same concept). If there is not enough room for you to move forward and clear the tracks or intersection, do not move forward. It doesn't matter whether or not you know the area.

Like this comment
Posted by Spokker
a resident of another community
on Apr 19, 2011 at 11:04 pm

Mr. Martin, you no doubt put a lot of effort into that letter of yours, but I wonder if it would be better served increasing safety for drivers, pedestrians and cyclists in the context of car vs. ped/bike/other car accidents.

As a pedestrian, I would much rather be crossing the Caltrain tracks than using marked crosswalks.

I saw a report in another city in which a blind woman waited 5 minutes to use a crosswalk because cars would not stop for her. I would much rather see issues related to the poor driving skills of drivers and their complete lack of awareness for pedestrians and cyclists.

But then again, going after drivers means not going after a big bad taxpayer funded public agency, which is much too juicy to resist, no matter how safe Caltrain actually is compared to other forms of transportation.

Like this comment
Posted by Greg Kruger
a resident of Mountain View
on Apr 19, 2011 at 11:09 pm

I already posted on another site. Speaking with some folks at a Starbucks the other day, we all seem to agree on something a bit different. The basic rule here is simple:

Train Wins

That said, this is not about people getting confused, lines or lights or signs in the wrong place. As drivers, we all have control of this problem, we alone are required to solve it.

If you can't clear the tracks, or it is confusing, or it is close, or a Fire Engine is coming, or there is a girl scout troop selling cookies, Never, ever, ever, ever, proceed onto any railroad tracks unless you know that you can clear the tracks.

I am saddened by the deaths. But they alone had control of it. It isn't Palo Alto's fault, not Cal Trains fault, not the VTA. Not the school children, not the car in front of you, You can prevent this from ever happening again if you simply never begin to cross any tracks that you cannot obviously successfully cross.

Is it worth being in a hurry? Let people behind you get mad because you chose to wait until that car in front of you actually turns right.

The Humans, the drivers, we are what needs fixing.

Train Wins.

Sorry for the repeat of other posts, but every time I see someone blaming the location of lights, lines, signs etc for this, I think we are making excuses.

Like this comment
Posted by sandy
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 20, 2011 at 11:22 am

I agree with Greg Kruger

Like this comment
Posted by tracey Chen
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Apr 20, 2011 at 11:33 am

Well, if people would just pay attention, this really wouldn't be an issue. The people who get stuck are either not thinking or aren't too bright, because they get stuck only if they're one of those who puts being right on the tail of the car in front of them ahead of safety. There is NO good reason to squeeze your car into a space you aren't sure is big enough that if it isn't means you could die (along with anyone hit by flying debris from your totaled car). The only other reason people could get stuck is this: If you're traveling along at normal speed, crossing the tracks, when the car in front of you stops even though it's green. That happens if a pedestrian or bike is crossing and the car in front of you wants to turn, and then has to wait. And because of the little rise in the road where the tracks are, the cars coming over the tracks from behind may not always be able to even see a pedestrian starting to cross (from either side). Otherwise, I'd say put a big sign over the road that says something like "Only ONE small car will fit on the other side of the tracks; don't try it dummy." But since there is also the risk of getting temporarily stuck because of unseen pedestrians, I guess they should do something more. However, eliminating the right turn on red option will be horrible. That corridor is already a nightmare because they cut down the lanes.

Like this comment
Posted by Rich
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 20, 2011 at 12:06 pm

I'm concerned that the recent "safety improvements" may actually have DECREASED safety at the crossings, by eliminating a possible emergency escape (namely, driving off the road and into the ditch running between the tracks and the chain wire fence).

In the past, I would be very sure to approach a level crossing while in the rightmost lane (just in case I might need to use this particular emergency manoeuvre) -- but now that the new pedestrian gates are in place, it doesn't really seem to matter anymore which lane I'm in.

Further, I'm not at all convinced that the new pedestrian gates really accomplish anything -- after all, someone bent on suicide will simply walk around the gates anyway, so what was the point?

Like this comment
Posted by Larry Cohn
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 20, 2011 at 6:34 pm

<< The only other reason people could get stuck is this: If you're traveling along at normal speed, crossing the tracks, when the car in front of you stops even though it's green. >>

You've just violated the law and should be ticketed. There have been several posts on this quoting the California Vehicle Code. It clearly states that you may not enter the crossing UNLESS THERE IS ROOM FOR YOUR VEHICLE ON THE OTHER SIDE. What could be simpler? If you obey the law, the situation you describe above cannot occur. If there is insufficient room for your vehicle on the opposite side of the tracks, it is illegal for you to start to cross the tracks; it is therefore not possible to get stuck on them. This is the law, simple logic and common sense all rolled into one. I don't understand why people have such a hard time grasping it.

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 20, 2011 at 8:45 pm

I appreciate Wayne Martin's analysis
This helpful description of the situation deserves attention from various politicians/public officials
Pls follow up and post later if you get any response(s)AND if any are substantive
Let's see if anyone with power decides to exert some effort and interest on this problem

Like this comment
Posted by Spokker
a resident of another community
on Apr 20, 2011 at 10:46 pm

The least important thing about railroad safety is not the physical safety features, but the attitudes of those who use the crossing.

Like this comment
Posted by JoAnn
a resident of Ventura
on Apr 21, 2011 at 2:56 am

My god, the comments. Do we really want the death penalty for a brief lapse of awareness? Mitigating harm is what this situation calls for, not making people behave perfectly at all times.

4 gates to completely block the tracks is a lousy idea. You are going to trap someone ON the tracks. Better yet, get the trains below grade where they belong.

Like this comment
Posted by Needs Fixing
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 21, 2011 at 7:54 am

Yesterday I checked out the limit line on Charleston at Alma and indeed it was moved way back some five feet towards the train track when Charleston was resurfaced. Now only one vehicle can safely stack against the limit line at Alma. If a second vehicle follows the first vehicle, which often happens, it's rear end will be left over the train tracks.

Most of us are now familiar with the fact that only one vehicle may stack safely on Charleston between the limit line and the train tracks. However, this does not stop one vehicle following the vehicle in front and having it's rear end left on the train tracks. Unfortunately, this is what happened to the nice lady from Indianapolis.

No doubt our Transportation Department will hire a consultant for $150,000 who will tell Council what we all know: "stop all vehicles west of the train tracks BEFORE you flash the red signal light and close the crossing gates."

Like this comment
Posted by sad but avoidable by her
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 23, 2011 at 2:34 pm

It WAS her fault though!! You never, never, never get your car ON, or Near the rail tracks!!! Anyone should know that. You WAIT until the space is available. Too many people just are too much in a hurry to think of the catastrophe that can occur.
Just be smart and don't be stupid, and abide by the signs.

Like this comment
Posted by Smith
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 23, 2011 at 9:46 pm

I am glad to see there are still people out there with common sense and some driving know-how. I drive eastbound over the CalTrain tracks every morning at W. Meadow during morning rush hour with all the school kids on their bikes. I am amazed by the idiocy of both drivers and cyclists alike. People cram themselves where there is no room expecting the light to miraculously turn green, they cut off others left and right, all the while putting their lives at risk. There is NO REASON for anyone to be "stuck" sitting on the tracks. Flat-out: you aren't following the law!

I have noticed a similar problem at the intersection of Arastradero at El Camino in the mornings. Parents heading westbound down that corridor ALWAYS sit in the middle of the intersection, usually three or four cars deep when their light turns red and the southbound cross traffic gets a green. Um, excuse me, but REALLY, what happened to waiting until there was room for you on the other side?! Yes, I am *that* annoying person always laying on the horn until you finally get your tush out of the way...and my full intention is to embarrass the hell out of you in front of your kids.

To reiterate what everyone else said--don't be stupid and follow the law. Perhaps educating the public on road/rail safety would be better money spent than re-vamping the already-re-vamped rail crossings.

Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of another community
on Oct 1, 2011 at 10:47 am

I really think we should just close down the intersections such as Churchill and Charleston. We can use crossing bridges such as Embarcadero and university so when would we want to risk people's life? Also, crossing trainings and bell are really a noise problem to the residents. From Churchill to embarcadero it's only about 5 minutes drive. It won't take more than 20 minutes to ride either. what is the point to have those streets?

Like this comment
Posted by not safe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 1, 2011 at 10:08 pm

closing the four at grade crossing is not a safe alternative. It would force more cars into few crossings creating accidents. It would force Gunn students and JLS students to use San Antonio to get school. As for the noise, its a consequence of living next to railroad tracks.

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

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