News


Caltrain slows trains at Charleston crossing

Rail officials are still investigating cause of fatal April 15 vehicle-and-train accident

Caltrain has ordered a dramatic slowdown of trains going through the Charleston Road crossing in Palo Alto while the transportation agency continues to investigate the cause of an Indiana woman's death on April 15, a rail agency spokesman said.

Judy Goldblatt, 65, of Indianapolis, was killed instantly by a northbound rush-hour train that slammed into her rental car. Witnesses said the vehicle was trapped on the tracks during heavy traffic. Her husband, Lawrence Goldblatt, dean emeritus of the Indiana University School of Dentistry, escaped unharmed before the impact, according to police.

The train slowdown affects every Caltrain passing Charleston Road, including express trains, said Mark Simon, spokesman for Caltrain's governing board, the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board. He did not know how greatly the speed has been reduced, but called it "significant."

The train that hit the Goldblatts' car was traveling an estimated 79 mph.

Simon would not comment on what investigators are looking for, nor did he know how long the investigation would take or when the trains might operate at normal speeds again. The slowdown order only applies only to the Charleston crossing, he added.

Volunteer track watchers, who patrol the Caltrain right-of-way in Palo Alto to deter suicides, said the slowdown has been ongoing since the accident.

Upgrades at the Charleston crossing were made in March as part of a Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) pedestrian- and bike-safety-improvement program that includes all four Palo Alto grade crossings: Charleston, Meadow, Churchill and Alma. Some residents claimed since the work, the warning bells are quieter and the lights and crossing arms are not synchronized. But Caltrain officials have said all of the work is compliant with California Public Utilities Commission regulations.

Comments

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Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 7, 2011 at 11:13 am

The following two videos were made, and uploaded to Youtube. Links were sent to all Bay Area elected officials, so that they could see the kinds of problems at this intersection:

Passing of Train from West Side of Tracks (before slowdown):
Web Link

Passing of Train from East Side of Tracks (after slowdown):
Web Link

While the slowdown is obviously good for motorists and pedestrians, the time it takes for a train to pass is now upwards of 60 seconds to 90 seconds. The whistles, and bells, are blasting away at full volume during this time. This noise can be heard for possibly 1,000 feet from the tracks. While it's barely tolerable during the day, when the wind is blowing, at night the noise becomes intolerable. The trains start passing before 5:00AM, and continue on until 00:00AM (at least). It's difficult to enjoy the quiet of the evening these days.

Everyone knows that only grade separations will solve this problem.

I also sent the letter at the link below to most of the elected officials in the Bay Area:

Web Link

To date, only one person(from Sunnyvale) has responded. That Council Member agreed that the safety issues on the Caltrain lines were unacceptable, but offered no ideas as to what the Sunnyvale Council might do to make that opinion known. No one from the Palo Alto City Council has responded.


Like this comment
Posted by Walt
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 7, 2011 at 11:50 am

Closing the road will also solve the problem. Replace it with an inexpensive pedestrian bridge over the train tracks.


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Posted by saw this
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on May 7, 2011 at 1:26 pm

at a crossing on central expwy., the gate went down for 30 seconds ,but then went back up, there was a stalled freight train 900 feet away. but then the gate went started ringing and going down,and right the 2 cars started to go just as gate was starting its downward motion!! they eased by as the gate came down! the tarain was moving slowly so they wouldnt have been hit,but the did start driving through just as the gate started ringing. this only couple weeks after charleston! but obviously thi shows that reading about something has very little effect on people unlesss they have witnessed these kind of accidents!


Like this comment
Posted by Disturbing Scene
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on May 7, 2011 at 2:13 pm

I'm not so sure the slowdown is increasing safety at this crossing. As I was waiting for a train to pass I saw another pedestrian look both ways and duck under the crossing arms, which were completely down. The bells were ringing, train horn blaring, and lights flashing and yet this guy still ran across. I asked him why, and he said "train is moving slowly I can't get across with twenty seconds to spare". Ridiculous! I still can't believe this guy would risk his life to shave off a few seconds of walking.

The slowdown completely defeats the purpose of making tracks safer. It's just going to lead to people trying to beat the train if they think the wait time is too long. Or worse yet, if the crossing arms are down for too long some people might just think no train is coming and just drive around the crossing barriers thinking that they're broken.


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Posted by local
a resident of Midtown
on May 7, 2011 at 2:19 pm

Thank you for making these videos. I think they demonstrates very clearly the circumstances or type of circumstances surrounding Mrs. Goldblatt's tragic accident. The car that was filmed at the end of the first video was very fortunate to have a driver behind him (black Prius) who left room for him to back up. I was at this red light the other day and saw several cars pull up onto the tracks to be second in line for a right turn. I cringed because these cars were temporarily boxed in the track zone. Thankfully no train was coming at the time.

My approach is to wait behind the tracks until the car in front of me completes it's right turn. I know it will cause some honks behind me but sorry even with slower trains I am not taking any chances.


Like this comment
Posted by Walt
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 7, 2011 at 4:27 pm

The city should ban right turns on red lights at intersections near train tracks. Then this problem would completely go away. If turning at red lights is not allowed, then there is no motivation to stop directly on the train tracks.


Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on May 7, 2011 at 4:28 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

I agree with Walt.
Close them NOW and deal with the non-fatal problems.


Like this comment
Posted by local
a resident of Midtown
on May 7, 2011 at 5:05 pm

I agree with banning the right turns. That's a no-brainer solution to half the problem. What about left turns when cars are lined up waiting for oncoming traffic to clear? The lead car may not make it through the light and the car behind him (waiting on the tracks) is trapped.


Like this comment
Posted by Walt
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 7, 2011 at 5:15 pm

Stopping on the tracks when turning left is just stupid. You know you're going to have to wait, so don't wait on top of the tracks!

But if the city wants to nanny these people, I suppose they could add a left turn arrow to smooth out left turn traffic.


Like this comment
Posted by Darwin
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 7, 2011 at 8:16 pm

It is illegal to enter the crossing unless there is room for your vehicle on the other side of the tracks. That's the law: California Vehicle Code section 22526(c). If you stop on the tracks and a train approaches with no way for you to get off the tracks, your goose is cooked. Obey the law and an accident such as this CANNOT happen. If you've stopped on the tracks you're already in harm's way regardless of the gates, bells and speed of the train. I don't know what there is to investigate; the cause of Mrs. Goldblatt's accident is quite clear.

PAPD should station some motorcycle officers around that intersection to ticket people who ignore this law. That would do more to prevent any further incidents than slowing the trains down IMO, and the city would clean up on traffic fines. A slow-moving train can kill you just as sure as a fast-moving one.


Like this comment
Posted by Track Watcher
a resident of Barron Park
on May 7, 2011 at 9:23 pm

Now Caltrain decides to slow down because they are under hot water, but when a lot of people from Palo Alto did a petition for trains to slow down so we could protect our kids, they would not. Too bad it took this woman to die in order for them to slow them down.


Like this comment
Posted by Misha
a resident of Midtown
on May 7, 2011 at 11:12 pm

Thank you Track Watcher for your comment. If they will slow the trains because of a car-related accident involving the wife of a prominent professor, will they also slow the trains to prevent suicide and help save our children?


Like this comment
Posted by Concerned in MP
a resident of Menlo Park
on May 8, 2011 at 12:36 am

There is an equally dangerous crossing on Ravenswood in Menlo Park, going east. Right after tracks, there is a pedestrian crossing if you go straight or make a right. I have seen many cars get stuck on the tracks because they did not expect traffic to stop. A visitor or inexperienced driver can easily get caught in this mess, especially during rush hour. This is a road to the high school, library, and community center, so lots of young drivers. It's a tragedy waiting to happen. What can a concerned citizen do ?d


Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on May 8, 2011 at 5:09 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Demand that all grade crossings in Urban areas be closed immediately. Then sort out the rest of it.


Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 8, 2011 at 8:43 am

If you slow the train for one crossing, then the argument will be made to slow the trains at all crossings.

I for one don't think slowing the trains will help unless the theory is that if someone stalls on the crossing they will have time to get out of the car when they see that the car won't be able to cross in time.

All this is doing is creating havoc to the Caltrain schedule and delays and longer commutes for the passengers. The more crossings, the longer the commute time.

Is this really a smart move?


Like this comment
Posted by Track Watcher
a resident of Barron Park
on May 8, 2011 at 12:55 pm

One thing for sure that needs to come off, are the rails that they installed, they are blocking the sidewalk which can be used as an emergency exit in case bikers or cars get stock as Mrs. Golblatt did and if those bars were not there she could had scape going over the sidewalk. Those bars serve no purpose there, and to the contrary they make things worst. Thanks Sue for following on this issue.


Like this comment
Posted by D Rail
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 8, 2011 at 7:38 pm

I still see no reason for caltrain cutting through the middle of PA at 40 to 70 plus miles per hour. In fact, I still see no benefit of caltrain to PA. but, if it needs to be there, slow it down to 25 miles per hour during the school day just like the car traffic in any school zone.


Like this comment
Posted by Steven
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 8, 2011 at 7:48 pm

I was shocked today (May 8) to see a car pass the tracks on a red light with a car already stopped at the light at the Meadow crossing. I don't think new drivers can easily judge if there is sufficient space beyond the track to stop. Caltrain and the city need to have clearer signage, or put in a signal to prevent cars from crossing the track.

Web Link


Like this comment
Posted by Bad idea
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 8, 2011 at 11:28 pm

"Demand that all grade crossings in Urban areas be closed immediately. Then sort out the rest of it."

Throwing the baby out with the bath water.


Like this comment
Posted by a PA mom
a resident of Midtown
on May 9, 2011 at 10:30 am

We have such an outdated transportation systems. Can we look around on the truly developed countries on how to handle train crossing? Sometimes I felt ashamed of how our politicians & special interest groups talk for YEARS with NO action.


Like this comment
Posted by Frank
a resident of Ventura
on May 9, 2011 at 11:00 am

I've said all during the HSR controversy that HSR or no we need to separate the at grade crossings.

As for Caltrain being no benefit to Palo Alto - clearly you have not read the ridership numbers from Caltrain where Palo Alto station is the 2nd to 4th busiest on the entire route (SF is always the busiest Mountain View and San Jose are up with Palo Alto).

Can you imagine all those Caltrain riders in cars driving through Palo Alto? "Nightmare" comes to my mind.

Finally Left turns should not an issue since the traffic signals at the train crossings are all 3 way. But moving the light to in front of the gate (that is no cars waiting between the tracks and Alma) would help. Closing all the at grade crossings would leave University, Page Mill Rd. and San Antiono as the only crossing points. Have you seen University or Page Mill at rush hour? (I'm not sure about San Antonio as I have not seen it recently).


Like this comment
Posted by Palo Parent
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 9, 2011 at 11:09 am

Frank: The San Antonio/train interchange is never a problem as it's an OVERPASS (hint-hint).


Like this comment
Posted by Bruce H., resident living on Park Bl
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on May 9, 2011 at 12:12 pm

The train slowdowns are both unsafe and hugely noise polluting. A very poor decision by CalTrain managers. Trains are running around 10 mph or less (86 of them go by my backyard fence each day!) The noise increase is incredible! From a safety perspective, I agree with the comment that these speeds are just asking for bold pedestrians to "beat the train," a truly horrible idea--more hazard, more noise. What is CalTrain thinking? Risk management would be my guess--they want to show they are taking action of some sort, even if it is clearly (to some) the wrong action. Imagine the lawsuit they would face if someone else were to be hurt or killed on the tracks in a similar manner to the SUV accident, and they were continuing to run at the usual speeds. Their liability would be huge! Given the current infrastructure setup, the trains running at as-designed-speed is the best choice for now. I am starting to become a believer in grade separations, though I remain concerned about property takings (and just compensation to homeowners) at the corners if this is implemented through eminent domain.
Bruce H. Homeowner, PS Resident, Voter.
PS--BTW, I endorse Simitian et al's present HSR proposal to make a spiffy (safe) CalTrain run from an HSR terminus at Diridon Station in SJ. I think that reflects some cogent thinking that is rather context sensitive!


Like this comment
Posted by Track Watcher
a resident of Barron Park
on May 9, 2011 at 12:47 pm

I passed by the tracks at 11:30, and there were so many people there (Caltrian people, firemen, police officer), that I thought maybe another incident had occurred, so I stopped my car and I asked. Two Caltrain people told me that they are just running tests. At that point the train heading north from San Antonio passed by and completely stopped, and then left with slow speed. I think they are nervous that another car might get hit.


Like this comment
Posted by David
a resident of Midtown
on May 9, 2011 at 3:51 pm

How about a HUGE sign on opposite side of tracks stating: "WARNING: Only space for ONE vehicle between tracks and cross street (i.e. Alma).


Like this comment
Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on May 9, 2011 at 5:22 pm

David's sign suggestion would work except for the fact that most people don't seem to pay any attention to traffic signs. Speed limits, school zones, bike lanes,no parking zones, turning traffic yield to pedestrians all are ignored. The train crossings already have lots of signs including ones that say not to stop on the tracks. Another sign, no matter how big, will not make any difference.


Like this comment
Posted by Just don't get it...
a resident of Southgate
on May 9, 2011 at 5:31 pm

What part of the sign "DO NOT STOP ON THE TRACKS" don't these people get? Common sense (sometimes a problem) would tell one that!! When the car in front clears then move forward!!


Like this comment
Posted by Darwin
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 9, 2011 at 9:23 pm

At a railroad crossing you ignore a sign that says "DO NOT STOP ON THE TRACKS" at your own peril.

You can slow down the trains at one intersection but in order for that plan to work you would have to slow them down all along the entire peninsula, both passenger and freight trains. It would then take hours to get from, say, Palo Alto to San Francisco and you could kiss the baby bullets goodbye.

Given the thousands and thousands of cars that pass through this intersection in a given year, how many fatalities have there been due to a car being stopped on the tracks? I don't think the solution is to compromise the entire system because one driver out of thousands made a mistake. With all due respect to her memory, if Mrs. Goldblatt had exited the car in time as her husband did, we probably wouldn't be having this discussion.

How much additional property tax are you willing to pay to build underpasses at Alma, Churchill, East Meadow and Charleston?


Like this comment
Posted by Mismatched Priorities
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on May 9, 2011 at 9:42 pm

Wake up Palo Alto...

Why is it Cal Trains Fault? Those tracks were there long before I was born... Actually the train traffic is much lighter than when more freight was moved on those tracks.

Other towns on the peninsula have made the investments to create grade changes. Palo Alto could have made these changes years ago. Years after our neighborhoods flooding with still haven't fixed the problem areas that caused our neighborhoods to flood.

Drive by the Expanding remodel of the Mitchell Park Library - while the fire station down the street is so old that it will fall down in a earthquake with lateral ground movement.

Our police officers and firefighters were out last night cleaning up after another DUI while we slept in our beds... They take care of the injured, traumatized and dead folks when they screw up at train crossings and at other accident scenes.

Perhaps we should focus on taking better care of our city workers than the books in our libraries. Personally I'm grateful for the firefighters and paramedics came and took care of my mother. If not for them, she would have died at home.

Priorities... time to check our priorities.


Like this comment
Posted by RT
a resident of Barron Park
on May 9, 2011 at 10:09 pm

Dump CalTrain - BART underground down the Peninsula - should've happened 30 years ago


Like this comment
Posted by Phil
a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 9, 2011 at 10:44 pm

I tend to agree with RT. While the rest of the Bay Area built a modern electrified system with no at grade crossing, Cal Trains has hardly improved at all in the 40 years I've lived here (a few express trains misnamed "Baby Bullets" doesn't count as much). At least Santa Clara County invested in a light rail system and is finally moving toward bringing BART to part of San Jose, but what has San Mateo county done with the tax money they would have used for BART? I know of the problems and arguments (BART has a non-standard gauge, Southern Pacific would still want to run a few freight trains down "it's" right of way), but these could be worked out if there was the will to do so. Cal Trains has been running deficits, while the supposedly too expensive BART has a surplus and pays more of its way from fares than Cal Trains. Maybe its time to rethink the kinds of commuter system we have on the Peninsula.


Like this comment
Posted by Bill
a resident of Barron Park
on May 9, 2011 at 11:06 pm

Most comments above are well-reasoned. But we still have suggestions that are not practical because the person has not thought through the whole problem.

Slow down the trains going through PA. Why not all cities along the route. SJ to SF distance about 40 plus miles. At 20 miles an hour (neglecting stops at stations) travel time would be 2 hours. Never happen.

Undergrounding any rail line whether BART or HSR down the Peninsula would cost tens of billions of dollars. Where will the money come from? Right. Taxpayers - most of whom wouldn't use the trains.

Removing at-grade crossings (all Peninsula cities? - do one, do all) is the best solution. As was pointed out, money is not available for that in the foreseeable future.

Motor cycle officers at each crossing - W. Charleston, E. Meadow, and Churchill for 24/7? Not enough police manpower and very costly.

Least expensive and probably most effective change is to move the stop signs west of the tracks. Isn't this the way it's done at the Alma St. crossing? I don't remember any reports of accidents at that intersection.


Like this comment
Posted by Larry Cohn
a resident of Midtown
on May 10, 2011 at 12:17 am

Phil, Southern Pacific hasn't existed for years. They were acquired by Union Pacific.


Like this comment
Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on May 10, 2011 at 9:13 am

First: I'm not sure what the point of the videos is.
Second: Grade separations are the City's responsibility to construct, as they are on city streets. Most other cities have already done so.
Third: The crossing arms are designed to be "break away". Just burst thru.


Like this comment
Posted by ann
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 10, 2011 at 11:01 am

Slowing down the trains at that intersection does not necessarily make things safer. I was driving east on Charleston around 5pm yesterday and was delayed for about 15 minutes at that intersection, waiting for two very slow trains to pass. I lost count of the number of times I watched the lights change at Wilkie Way. I hate to think how far behind me the traffic was backed up. The problem with this is that angry and frustrated drivers tend to do stupid things. Several cars did illegal U-turns so they could get out of the mess. When approaching the tracks, the cars were speeding up because they desperately wanted to get through the crossing and not wait any longer. There was honking as a right-turning car yielded to a pedestrian, and the clearly frustrated driver behind him almost crashed into him.

How about having one of those bright flashing signs, like the speed limit warning signs, that says "do not stop on tracks"? There are so many things to be aware of at the crossings, the existing sign is not easily seen.


Like this comment
Posted by Stop Here
a resident of Barron Park
on May 10, 2011 at 1:29 pm

There are many intersections where there is a sign (and white line) up to three car lengths in front of an intersection stating "Stop Here" (or something to that effect). That would be a quick low cost solution - repaint and place signs on the west side of the tracks at these intersections, such that cars must stop before the tracks on a red light.


Like this comment
Posted by maguro_01
a resident of Mountain View
on May 10, 2011 at 5:55 pm

We see there are a few people, as always, who don't use the trains and think if they weren't there their house price would increase. A fair percentage of local activism always has that cynical explanation. But trying to glom some tax money for another tiny park is one thing, trying to exploit a car getting hit at a rail crossing another.

I walk across the Castro Street/Central intersection a lot to go to downtown Mountain View or the handy Transit Center. Companies run shuttle buses to the industrial park area across 101. I have seen empty ones sitting at the light behind one car with the rear end hanging over the tracks. When the bell goes off, etc, they beep and move off the tracks but behind the single car. As a judgement call I don't think they should do that even though they have a good overview. Ticketing would be in order. Someday someone may do that out of habit with a load of passengers.

At that intersection there are separate gate mechanisms on both sides of the street as it's 4 lanes. Why can't the "downstream" gate be delayed? If a 2 lane street has single gates, the double gates would be an improvement. An escape might be as well but with a video record. Longer yellow lights might help. Traffic throughput is important but not primary in such intersections.

Sometimes people demand to "Do something, now!" whenever such an accident happens though that may not be necessary. But Caltrain eliminating much of its usefulness should not be on the table.

For the anti-trainers -
Web Link

Note that the article doesn't take into account the expense of parking, insurance, depreciation, etc, associated with cars. It's pretty clear that trains win for individuals. They apparently win overall given the public investment made to support some equivalent of the service in car person miles.



Like this comment
Posted by maguro_01
a resident of Mountain View
on May 10, 2011 at 6:37 pm

ps - I've also seen a car that, at night, apparently was going to cross the tracks at Castro Street and make a left turn onto Central towards Palo Alto. For some reason the driver, who was drunk, made a left turn onto the railroad right of way instead. The car came to a stop hung up on the rails and gravel unable to extricate itself. Before any train arrived the Mountain View police did and had it towed. They no doubt stopped any train from hitting it - none may have due anyway that late.

The only way out of problems like that is to not have the at-grade crossing at all. Such a driver and any companions should be entered into consideration for the annual Darwin Award and that's that. There is a hazard that the car, after impact, could injure someone nearby or start a fire. That problem may never have occurred before, and does not itself justify major changes.


Like this comment
Posted by GM Mama
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 10, 2011 at 7:02 pm

I hope that the VTA bus drivers are also given the message about how unsafe it is to stop a vehicle on railroad tracks. Yesterday (Monday, 9th May), my daughter and I were driving northbound on Alma from the Greenmeadow neighborhood at about 7:45 a.m. We were amazed at what we saw parked on the tracks at Charleston Road and Alma Street.

As we approached the Charleston/Alma intersection, we saw a VTA bus, number 9772, crossing the tracks, heading east on Charleston. The bus had pulled up near the stop line past the tracks, with the middle of the bus actually on the tracks and the rear of the bus on the other side of the tracks. With heavy traffic at that hour, the bus was left straddled over the tracks for several minutes. If a train had arrived during any gridlocking on Alma, the bus could have been trapped and a collision would have occurred.

I assume the bus was empty of passengers, since its electronic sign stated, "Coach Terminal". Nevertheless, a collision would have been disastrous. Every lane was packed with traffic, and there were pedestrians nearby. I believe the bus was in exactly the same position as the car in the recent tragic accident.

So, VTA, please brief your drivers on safety rules for crossing the train tracks! Thank you.


Like this comment
Posted by machine
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 11, 2011 at 12:21 pm

at churchill, a car made the light at last moment crossing alma going west just as the gate was one third down and speeding southbound train coming!! its like the modern heavy traffic isnt compatible with train so close to a boulevard. the machine age isnt compatible with the ''human mess''.!


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

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