A year after Indiana resident Judith Goldblatt was killed when a train hit her rental car at the Charleston Road crossing, questions linger about the events surrounding her death and the City of Palo Alto's role, if any, in the accident.
Goldblatt, 65, and her husband, Dr. Lawrence Goldblatt of Indianapolis, were traveling east on Charleston when their Nissan Altima got struck on the tracks shortly after 5 p.m. on April 15, 2011. According to investigators, there were cars in front of the Goldblatts when the crossing-guard arms lowered, blocking the Altima from driving off the tracks.
Lawrence Goldblatt managed to escape the car before impact.
Speculation about the accident surfaced almost immediately, ranging from whether the traffic signals had malfunctioned to whether recent work at the rail crossing and roadway might have contributed to the tragedy.
Over the past year, the Weekly has sought to learn the extent to which the City of Palo Alto and Caltrain investigated the possible role of a traffic-signal malfunction, leading to a traffic jam that contributed to the incident.
But despite numerous requests for information and documents, the Weekly has found that neither agency, it appears, investigated how the signals affected traffic on the day of the accident -- in spite of irregularities with the signal timings that were discovered later and a month-long slowdown of the trains through Palo Alto while the signals were examined.
Direct inquiries to city staff as to the extent of their investigation have only elicited vague replies and accounts that conflict with the official San Mateo County Sheriff's Office Transit Police investigation. Meanwhile, Transit Police Det. Victor Lopez said he did not investigate events related to the traffic signals. The Transit Police have jurisdiction only within the Caltrain right-of-way, so any investigation into events occurring outside of the right-of-way -- namely, traffic signals -- falls under the jurisdiction of the city, he said.
The Weekly has learned through documents and interviews that:
Within a week after the accident, Amtrak officials noticed a malfunction of the traffic signals at Charleston and Alma Street
City staff examined signal timings and changed them twice within three weeks of the accident to curtail longer "wait" times
City staff also replaced the traffic-signal controller, which governs how quickly the lights respond to an indicator from an approaching train, called a "pre-emption"
Judith Goldblatt attempted to maneuver her car at an angle and briefly got it off the tracks but ultimately it ended up back on the tracks
Witnesses said that Goldblatt did exit the car but returned for an unknown reason
Rail equipment was functioning properly at the time of the incident and afterward, according to the Transit Police.
The Weekly first went to the city in June regarding a Caltrain official's report that the traffic signal had malfunctioned. The city declined to comment until February of this year.
After nearly 10 months of silence, city officials now admit the signal timings were irregular, but they maintain the seconds of difference did not play a role in trapping Goldblatt's car on the tracks and are within accepted standards.
Curtis Williams, director of planning and community environment, said in a March 28 interview that he feels the city did investigate the signal timing and that it wasn't a factor in the accident.
"I couldn't be prepared to say, 'No, nothing could ever possibly contribute,'" to the accident, he said, but he called the role of the traffic signals a long shot.
Instead, he cited the city's understanding that Goldblatt had the opportunity to drive off the tracks.
"Our recollection, and it is supported by everything we've seen and heard, is that those cars in front of her were cleared in front of the intersection," he said.
"The light turned green for her to get out of the intersection. ... She wasn't trapped between cars (when the train hit). There was no reason she couldn't have gone forward then," he said.
But Lopez refuted that claim Monday. He said witnesses reported Goldblatt's car became stuck behind traffic that stopped when the light turned red.
"The light turned yellow, and traffic slowed down and blocked her," he said, later clarifying the traffic blocked her car in from all directions.
Lopez said Goldblatt appeared to panic. She tried to maneuver her car at an angle back and forth.
"She could've gone around the edge. Originally, according to the engineer, she got out of the track line, but then went back on. I just think she panicked. It was just a tragic accident," he said.
Goldblatt exited the car, according to witnesses, Lopez said. But for some reason, she returned. Her purse was found under the seat, and perhaps she had returned to retrieve it, he said. "But we will never know," he added.
Investigators concluded the accident was ultimately Goldblatt's fault because she was on the tracks, he said.
While the city denies the traffic signals' involvement in creating a traffic jam, both city and Caltrain documents obtained by the Weekly through the California Public Records Act show that both Amtrak and the city were concerned about the signals immediately after the accident.
On April 15, Ryan Johnson, city electrician, and James R. Lynch, an Amtrak assistant division engineer, verified visually that the city's traffic controller was operating correctly, according to an April 22 email from Scott Yahne, the city's supervisor of electrical systems.
But the day after, Chief Transportation Official Jaime Rodriguez discovered the Charleston signal's green light ran two seconds too long in the east-west direction Goldblatt was traveling, Williams said.
Although a longer time might sound favorable to clearing the tracks, it actually could have the effect of making a driver think he or she has time to dart across the rails, Williams said.
Typically, the green light allows each car four seconds to go forward. It takes about three of those seconds per car to go through the tracks, Williams said.
The Charleston signal allowed for 12 seconds of green when the traffic controller received the pre-emption message -- the indicator that a train was coming. The 12-second interval is within safety parameters of up to 20 seconds, however, Williams said.
But Rodriguez determined the interval should be 10 seconds before the light turns red.
Amtrak workers also noticed a problem with the intersection's signals. On April 21 Amtrak notified the city of a different problem. Patrick Murphy, a signal maintainer for Amtrak, reported there were long track-clearance times on two different occasions, according to Yahne's email. Murphy saw the signal for traffic traveling north and south along Alma stay green for 18 seconds, Williams said.
Murphy issued a slow-order for all trains passing through the crossing. Caltrain notified the Transit Police, according to Murphy's log.
When Yahne and a team of city, Caltrain and Amtrak officials went to the scene, they watched the intersection for an hour but could not duplicate what Murphy had seen, Yahne wrote in his email. Rodriguez, City Traffic Engineer Sam Peiris, Yahne and Caltrain and Amtrak personnel returned to the city's Municipal Services Center later that morning to review downloaded data from the signal controller. They spent two hours validating the information and found no malfunction, he wrote.
Rodriguez continued to investigate. On May 4, at Rodriguez's request, Yahne built a replica of the intersection using a spare controller. Yahne "found that there is a longer delay than normal for that intersection," according to an email by Russ Kamiyama, city Utilities Department manager of electrical operation.
The Alma traffic light had a 12-second minimum green time for cars traveling north and south before the signal would allow east- and westbound traffic on Charleston to clear the area, he noted. The duration is three times longer than at Palo Alto's other crossings at Churchill and East Meadow, according to Kamiyama's report. Churchill and East Meadow each have a four-second delay.
Yahne also found that at Charleston "the initial pre-emption only forces out the pedestrian crossing north/south bound (does not allow traffic to clear tracks) and the total time delay is 12 seconds," Kamiyama noted.
Later that morning, Rodriguez reduced the Alma Street green time down to four seconds to match the times at East Meadow and Churchill, he noted in a May 4 email.
The 12-second interval had been in place at the time of Goldblatt's accident and had been functioning that way for several years, Williams said last month. He did not have an explanation for why it had been set differently from the other intersections.
Rodriguez also replaced the 7-year-old traffic-signal controller on May 9, which is located at the northwest corner of Alma and Charleston. Williams said the replacement was a proactive measure that gave engineers more flexibility in adjusting timing. The automatic trigger to tell the controller a train is coming takes one second now instead of four, he said. In addition, the city has added video cameras at the intersection, he said.
Although an email from Rodriguez immediately after the accident show he directed staff to gather data and other documents related to the traffic signals -- and it appears the city's police department prepared a supplemental report related to the accident -- the city appears not to have come to any conclusions about its role in what happened April 15.
City Manager James Keene said on Thursday that any independent Palo Alto investigation would have muddled the official query into the accident.
City Attorney Molly Stump said on Jan. 19 that it did not appear the police department was involved. Transit Police had told the Palo Alto police department that they were handling the investigation.
Stump said the police supplemental report is exempt from disclosure because it is an investigative report.
The city also declined to release papers it said are not subject to disclosure under exemptions for attorney-client privileged communications, attorney work product and preliminary drafts and notes, and it claimed one record is exempt under state evidence code "as a record acquired in confidence where the public interest in maintaining confidentiality clearly outweighs the interest in disclosure," Stump wrote to Weekly Publisher Bill Johnson on Feb. 8.
Caltrain produced no written documents between it and the city regarding discussions about the traffic signal, and it has not answered a request to explain why it held the trains at slow speeds going through the Charleston intersection last year until May 21.
The Transit Police also declined to release the final report. Investigative reports are exempt from release to third parties under the public records act, Deputy County Counsel David Silberman wrote to the Weekly in September.
But he provided a preliminary report from April 15, which noted "the victim was driving across the train tracks when vehicles stopped in front of her as the crossing arms came down."
Lopez said that regardless of events, it is unlawful to be on the tracks.
"People need to be careful. They need to be safe. If the light turns green, wait until the track is cleared before crossing it. Working in this unit, I would've never imagined how many vehicles have been struck by trains," he said.