After a 35-year-old woman died when a bullet train struck her car at the Ravenswood Avenue crossing in Menlo Park, the community is searching for ways to prevent more tragedy.
About 30 people gathered at Cafe Zoe on Monday night (March 2), to try to answer that question.
A sense that the intersection is dangerous pervaded the conversation. The Ravenswood crossing has seen trains clip cars on the tracks twice before, but the Feb. 23 crash was the first fatality, according to Caltrain.
"There are no words to express how horrible it is, what happened," Mayor Catherine Carlton told the group.
Judging from those who use the crossing, near misses are common. One scenario: traffic appears to be flowing smoothly, then a pedestrian enters the crosswalk, which is about 105 feet from the east side of the tracks, suddenly bringing cars to a stop.
"It seems like you're clear to go and all of a sudden, a pedestrian goes across and you're stuck," Jana Tuschman said during Monday's meeting.
Another scenario has a driver starting to cross once space has opened up on the other side, only to have another car change lanes, cutting the driver off and leaving the vehicle stuck on the tracks.
Mark Tuschman said he almost got stuck about two weeks ago when a driver swerved into his lane to make an illegal left turn on to Alma St.
"I think another accident is going to happen unless we do something right now," he said, and suggested making all trains stop in Menlo Park rather than passing straight through as the bullet train does, to at least decrease the speed.
There's also the possibility that a vehicle could stall on the tracks.
Kristina Lemons, who witnessed the fatal accident from her nearby office, said that since the Feb. 23 collision, she's seen five drivers trapped on the tracks.
There's no quick or easy solution, but the group had a couple ideas:
■ Synchronize the pedestrian crosswalk, which is about 105 feet away from the tracks, with traffic signals on El Camino Real so that vehicles have time to clear the railway before anyone can enter the crosswalk.
■ Move the crosswalk farther down the street.
■ Get Caltrain's permission to post electronic countdown signs that count down how much time is left until the next train passes through the crossing.
■ Do more public outreach about rail safety.
■ Prohibit left turns from Alma Street on to Ravenswood Avenue entirely, rather than just during commute hours. According to the Menlo Park Police Department, 128 drivers were cited for failing to obey traffic signs at that intersection in 2014.
■ Increase enforcement of traffic laws at the intersection.
Menlo Park Fire Protection District Chief Harold Schapelhouman told the Almanac that he thought a signal pre-emption system might help. He was not at Monday's meeting, but had discussed the idea with the mayor.
"I believe there could be a way for the train guard to trigger the signal light to turn green on Ravenswood at El Camino Real, which would help move the traffic along," Chief Schapelhouman said, adding that the necessary equipment may already be installed. "From an immediate need and cost standpoint, it could be a fairly straightforward process."
The long-term solution is to move the tracks out of the way but whether that should be up, on elevated tracks, or down, via a tunnel, is a matter of contention. As former councilman Steve Schmidt pointed out on Monday night, Menlo Park doesn't support elevated tracks for high-speed rail. But now with a $750,000 grant from the San Mateo County Transportation Authority in hand to study grade separations at the Ravenswood crossing, the city will have to consider raising the existing tracks over the roadway, which may require a change in policy from the council.
Councilwoman Kirsten Keith, who serves on the rail subcommittee with colleague Rich Cline, told the group the issue of elevation would be brought to the council.
"I think it would be a disservice to the residents of Menlo Park not to consider all options," she said.
Elevated tracks may be noisier; they may be ugly, some said. Underground tracks may cost billions. The key, as Councilman Ray Mueller put it during the community meeting, is to avoid "analysis paralysis."
"The debate of aesthetics vs. noise vs. safety has come to a head," he said. "We're either going to find the money (to make changes) or we're not."
Mayor Carlton said the city is committed to seeking solutions, and will hold a formal meeting later this month.
If the worst happens and you are stuck on the tracks, "the number one thing you need to do is get out of the car," said Caltrain spokeswoman Christine Dunn. "Regardless of whether it's a new car, or you think it might start back up, or whatever, get out of the car."
Then get clear of the right-of-way to avoid debris from a train strike. "If the train is approaching, run in the direction of the train -- at an angle, well off the right-of-way, toward the train," Dunn said. "It's counterintuitive."
A train traveling about 79 miles per hour needs at least half a mile to stop, she said.
"If you're off the right-of-way, in a safe spot, we would like you to call our safe rail phone number and report that your car is stuck on the train tracks. We recommend that people program this into their phones -- 1-877-723-7245."
Dunn said that line goes directly to the county's Transit Police Bureau, which is the only law enforcement agency with the authority to stop the train.
Call Caltrain at 650-508-7927 to schedule a free rail safety presentation.