Editorial: Lessons from car-train accident

Culture of defensiveness and secrecy reflects poorly on city and disrepects the public's right to know

No one has suggested that the death of Judith Goldblatt on the train tracks at Charleston Road a year ago was anything other than a tragic accident, in spite of the secretive and evasive handling of the case by Palo Alto and other officials.

Goldblatt, visiting local relatives and driving a rental car, apparently drove onto the tracks without realizing there were cars ahead blocking her path.

Related story: One year later, questions remain about train/car collision

Almost immediately after the horrific accident last April 15 public concerns were raised over the safety of Palo Alto's four grade-level railroad crossings, the placement and timing settings of traffic signals and the operation of the Charleston-Alma traffic signal in particular.

Nearby residents reported that trains had been slowed after the accident as a precaution when passing through that crossing, leading the Weekly to begin asking questions of authorities.

The Weekly learned that Caltrain engineers had detected problems with the "pre-emption" signaling at the Charleston crossing after the accident, causing potential inconsistent behavior of the traffic signals controlling the flow of traffic on Alma and Charleston. (When a train is approaching an intersection, it triggers a message to the traffic lights to sequence to red along Alma St. so that there is time for traffic crossing the tracks to move to safety before the train passes.)

Despite the clear public safety concerns being raised, what became a year-long investigation of the accident by the Weekly ran into resistance almost from the beginning.

Palo Alto and Caltrain officials referred inquiries to the San Mateo County Sheriff's office, which functions as transit police for Caltrain and is responsible for investigating any Caltrain-involved accidents. For months Sheriff's detectives would not comment and said their investigation was not complete.

Palo Alto City Attorney Molly Stump told the Weekly that on the day of the accident the Sheriff's office took charge of the scene and the investigation and that the Palo Alto police played no role.

At first Palo Alto officials denied they had conducted any investigation, yet now reference a "supplemental" investigation done by the police but which they refuse to release. City Manager Jim Keene doesn't even acknowledge there was a Palo Alto investigation, saying that doing an independent investigation would have "muddled" the official inquiry being done by transit authorities.

And city Planning Director Curtis Williams, responsible for the city's transportation division, has in the last few weeks made statements contradicting the Sheriff's investigators. Williams stated no cars were blocking Goldblatt's exit from the tracks at the time of the collision, while the transit police investigator Victor Lopez said he concluded that all traffic lanes were occupied and no escape route was available.

California law requires accident investigation reports to be released to anyone involved in the accident, but does not mandate their release to the general public. Despite repeated requests, both the Palo Alto City Attorney and the San Mateo County Counsel have invoked the legal exemption in the Public Records Act and refused to provide the reports, even with redactions of any sensitive or confidential information, such as the names of witnesses or photographs from the scene.

Other documents and emails obtained by the Weekly through multiple Public Records Act requests confirmed that shortly after the Goldblatt accident meetings were held between Caltrain and the city about malfunction concerns, timing changes were made to the signals and the entire traffic-signal controller was replaced.

But for months following the accident city officials declined to comment, other than to state that there was nothing in the investigative reports that suggested any cause for the accident other than Judith Goldblatt's error in judgment for stopping on the tracks.

While the exact circumstances that day will never be known, the city owed the community a complete and thorough report, and recommendations on how traffic controls at our railroad grade crossing might be improved to increase safety.

Instead, either paralyzed by liability concerns or simply insensitive to legitimate public concerns, the city made a horrible tragedy worse by not being forthcoming.

At a time when great attention has been focused on the risks associated with the Caltrain tracks running through the community and the dangers of grade crossings, the public deserves much more from its city officials.

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Posted by ODB
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 22, 2012 at 2:02 pm

Who are you? I cannot find the name of the author of this piece. Is there a reason for that?

Like this comment
Posted by Phil
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 23, 2012 at 4:55 am

Well stated at least in principle ODB, although I will acknowledge that public figures do fall under a different level of scrutiny and qualification. Your point however does illustrate that anonymity doesn't necessarily equate to something diabolical. The journalist or staff members that contributed to this piece are simply representing the editorial opinion of this publication. I am sure that editors signed off on the nature and message of the work to ensure that it was a fair representation of not just one person, but that of a general consensus of the their staff. For that reason newspapers tend to write general editorials without tagging one person with a byline. Newspaper publications have a reason for doing this, and I understand and accept that.

Conversely, just because a law enforcement agency chooses not to release information, in this case involving a fatal traffic collision, I fail to see anything diabolical here either. As stated in this editorial, state law mandates that a law enforcement agency is only required to release accident reports to the parties involved. Why is that? I would imagine the simple answer is to respect their privacy. The same privacy that most reasonable people would expect especially under these tragic circumstances. Undoubtedly the victim's family as well as the train operators are already experiencing a great deal of anguish. The events have been investigated and will be scrutinized by law enforcement, insurance companies, and transportation agencies. The Weekly characterizes the city's response to the information request in this case as being secretive and defensive, and that it disrespects the public's right to know. That's a huge jump to make when it appears that law enforcement was just following the rules in place. Please, spare us the tabloid headlines. There is a balance in establishing what the public has the right to know, and how much information they need to know in achieving that. Especially in a case where public safety is involved, as with the rail crossings, what we need to know to improve safety can be gathered without law enforcement turning over the intimate details of a case to the media, nor does it necessarily mean that they're being secretive if they don't. It seems to me that they are following the order of law and respecting people's privacy. I don't have any problem with that.

The article also states that the Palo Alto force and city deferred any inquiry to this matter to the Sheriff's Department who conducted the primary investigation. That's sounds like standard operating procedure to me. They conducted the primary investigation, made any conclusions, and will ultimately be responsible for representing the case wherever it should lead. That being the case, no matter how many other agencies were involved should and would refer any official inquiries to them. Again, nothing more than common sense and standard operating procedures. It is also not uncommon for other agencies involved to submit a supplemental report to cover and describe what role they played in the overall investigation. Since the accident occurred in Palo Alto, there is a good chance that PAPD officers were the first on the scene. If so, speaking hypothetically, they would have documented their initial observations, what life saving measures they may have taken, securing evidence, identify any witnesses that would later be interviewed by the Sheriff's Department, and what role they played in traffic control, etc. Typically those are the type of support activities a police department would provide to the primary agency conducting the investigation. They would very much be in a stabilizing role and not in the position of conducting any further investigation or drawing any opinions and conclusions. Again, I don't see anything alarming, unusual, or diabolical here either.

In my own humble opinion, journalism in general continues to slip further into what is becoming more tabloid based and voyeuristic in nature. Eye catching headlines that are meant to tantalize the reader with suggestion of secrecy and conspiracy. A bit more professionalism, investigation, and knowledge of the subject matter would often lead to reasonable explanations of the events being covered. Like I said, spare us the sensationalism and if anything respect us as readers.

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Posted by Right-To-Know
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 23, 2012 at 8:56 am

> Why is that?

A fair question—if asked of the Legislature.

> I would imagine the simple answer is to respect their privacy.

Perhaps. But without specific reasons for this ‘privacy”, the failure to release accident reports obscures potential safety problems with the accident locations. As it turns out, some (or multiple people) are at fault in any accident. It’s not clear what damage that information could do to the guilty parties if that information would to be made public, particularly since accident reports are not guaranteed to be the truth. In many cases, subsequent analysis by investigators with more training have revealed that accident reports are often wrong in the conclusions, and even details.

> It is also not uncommon for other agencies involved to
> submit a supplemental report to cover and describe what
> role they played in the overall investigation

True—but why shouldn’t this be a publicly accessible document? Whose “privacy’” is involved in such a report?

> Again, I don't see anything alarming, unusual, or diabolical
> here either.

Same question—if this is all that is in the supplemental report—why should it not be a publicly accessible document?

> Eye catching headlines that are meant to tantalize the reader
> with suggestion of secrecy and conspiracy

Maybe, but “government” has lied to us about many, many, things over the years. The Bay of Pigs, The Bay of Tonkin incident, the general conduct of the Vietnam War, Regulatory Capture of government agencies like the SEC, as well as most of the other so-called ‘regulators” that helped to create the meltdown of 2008, Bill Clinton’s escapades, and so on goes the list. It was only the media that stepped into the breach. Unfortunately, they are by no means perfect, as we see a loss of focus, and now ethics as is coming to light with the current newspaper scandals in Britain.

> not diabolical ..

Well .. maybe. But then again, there has been an on-going “evolution” of many government agencies from the role of “servant” to “master”. It is not hard to see that in police agencies around the country. The underlying issue here, the right of the public to know what is going on, seems to be thwarted by police agencies up and down the Caltrain line. Why? Why shouldn’t the public know about any possible security issues on this railroad, that is government run?

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Apr 23, 2012 at 5:33 pm

The editorial seems to be repeating the details of the previous article more than looking at the “big picture”, as editorials are want to do. While the article/editorial both tip-toe around the issue of “who’s in charge here”, neither seem to actually tackle that question, head on. It’s hard to discern what the Weekly thinks we have learned from their investigation.

So—let’s ask that question here in the comments section: “Who’s actually in charge of Caltrain?” Is it the $400K/year CEO, or the elected and unelected Board of Directors, or unelected, and more-of-less anonymous and unaccountable government employees? Does the “Buck” actually stop anywhere in the Caltrain organization, where public safety is concerned?

It is clear that Caltrain is a multi-jurisdictional agency—so who is responsible for the operation that crosses three counties (San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara)? The answer seems to be “No One”, as the Weekly’s reporting efforts have found out.

This lack of central accountability should be important to the public—and it should have been important to the Weekly, if it is going to advocate for the public. There are other issues too—such as the clear lack of a published safety model for the railroad, which would provide the public of some sense of how/when technology would be brought to bear to increase our collective safety on/near the line. The following list offers a few obvious suggestions:

Possible Technology-based Public Safety Upgrades

o) Collision-avoidance radars on trains
o) Optical/Microwave vehicle-on-the-tracks detectors
o) Triply-redundant circuitry on all electronics-based safety equipment
o) On-board diagnostics For all electronics
o) Communications links from all traffic controllers, traffic lights, guard-arms to alert Caltrain dispatchers, local police and all moving trains of an obstruction on the tracks at a given location.
o) Remote control of all traffic control/safety equipment to both initiate a diagnostic, and to record the results for later analysis, or to initiate repair/replacement action.
o) Surveillance cameras that would provide to remotely detect obstructions on the track, as well as to record the details of accidents that occur on the tracks.
o) Computer-based simulations of traffic timings and timings for on-coming trains that would activate guard arms.

Some of these technologies have been available for years, others are not exactly off-the-shelf, but certainly are far enough along in their development (such as collision avoidance radars) that the technologies could be deployed as secondary systems to provide field testing that might be needed to make this sort of safety equipment available to railroads everywhere.

The MTC (Metropolitan Transportation Commission) has recently authorized a vast sum of money to electrify this poorly utilized transportation mode (somewhere between $1B and $2B—depending on how the work is financed). How much money has the MTC authorized for safety improvements? While it’s anyone’s guess how much all of the suggestions on the above list might cost—it is not hard to predict it is in the tens of millions of dollars—as opposed to the billions required for electrification—which will provide no increases in safety, in and of itself. Unfortunately, the Weekly has not delved into this aspect of Caltrain operations that involve public safety.

Many questions have not been asked of Caltrain—such as if BART has its own police force, how come Caltrain doesn’t? And then, there is the never-ending question about grade separations, at least at the crossings that seem to be the most dangerous.

Hopefully the Weekly will take some of these ideas/suggestions to heart, and continue their work in this area—offering us more in-depth analysis, and reporting, in the future.

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