Community examines rail-crossing hazards in Menlo Park


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.

Safety tips

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.

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3 people like this
Posted by Grade separate
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 4, 2015 at 1:47 pm

What we need, Caltrain, is GRADE SEPARATED crossings. Stop delaying. You have been talking about it for DECADES and have failed to deliver. Just do it.

Grade separated crossings will improve road operations of all east/west crossings and routes. Grade separation will also, counterintuitively, improve operations of north/west streets. Grade separation will enable increasing the number and speed of trains (while silencing horns). Grade separation will eliminate the suicide magnet in multiple communities and on Palo Alto's school routes.

Funding this is critical I will not vote for any upcoming VTA revenue measure UNLESS they commit some serious money to support an effort to implement grade with Caltrain separation in Palo Alto. the transit authorities do not cooperate and it is a real problem that they operate in such separate silos.

I would love to see PA Weekly do an in-depth piece on the need for grade separation (including a careful accounting of the number of track fatalities in Santa Clara County over the last ten years) and the BARRIERS to funding it. The money is there. VTA is holding a lot of it...and they don't collaborate.

14 people like this
Posted by southbayresident
a resident of another community
on Mar 4, 2015 at 4:25 pm

@ Grade separate,

By addressing your comments to Caltrain you are preaching to the choir. Caltrain has been advocating for grade separations for a very long time but the city of Menlo Park and Palo Alto hold the authority to approve or reject those proposals. Both of these cities rejected all prior proposals to grade separate that involved elevating the tracks. The only option they would consider were incredibly expensive deep bore tunnels. Remember the need to pass below the streams and creeks.

The state was going to pay for elevating the tracks through the High Speed Rail project but I am pretty sure everyone here understands how that process went except apparently the editorial staff of the Palo Alto Weekly which not too long ago published a piece placing the blame on Caltrain. That editorial was widely ridiculed as written by a group of people that were clearly not in touch with this particular issue and the history of it. Like you I would like the PA Weekly to do an in depth piece on grade separation but hopefully they can be trusted to get their facts right.

Also, it's worth considering that there are limited funds for grade separation and when one community demands the most expensive option (deep bore tunnels) without offering to tax themselves to pay for the costs above the more economical grade separation options this likely deprives other communities of getting the grade separated crossings they need as well. If Palo Alto and Menlo Park will only consider tunnels as the only option they need to do what Berkeley did with BART in the 1960's and tax themselves to pay for it.

3 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 4, 2015 at 4:53 pm

This is where it gets silly.

Caltrain should not be doing this City by City. It needs to be done and it needs to be done all along the Peninsula. It seems wrong to tax just the cities that have Caltrain tracks to pay for the grade separation in that particular City.

A much better way would be to put tax on gas, or a sales tax for the whole of the Bay Area, to provide funding for various transportation improvements, the largest of which would be improvements to Caltrain (grade separation).

A successful and efficient Caltrain service is important for all Peninsula and South Bay residents. A successful and efficient BART service is important for all Peninsula, East Bay, North Bay and South Bay residents. A successful and efficient bridge system is important for all SF Bay residents.

If taxing is necessary, then we should all be paying to improve all area projects. We should get rid of all the various transportation agencies and put them under one authority to reduce administrative and other shared costs.

The system in place is not an efficient way to do things.

1 person likes this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 4, 2015 at 6:21 pm

"Grade separation will eliminate the suicide magnet in multiple communities and on Palo Alto's school routes."

You're wrong about that and you shouldn't even imply that will happen. Reduction perhaps - elimination, no. As long as there is access to the tracks (e.g., stations), there is always the risk. Happens in the NYC subway all the time. Web Link

2 people like this
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Mar 4, 2015 at 7:01 pm

Lets be honest though, it might not eliminate suicides, but it will completely eliminate collisions with vehicles, which, either intentionally or by accident, can be much more disastrous, especially when they start using lighter electric trains.

1 person likes this
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Mar 4, 2015 at 8:21 pm

Grade separations are not cheap. Assuming that the average price is $75M, and that there are, say, 40 at-grade crossings that would need to be converted to grade-separated crossings, this would come to about $3B. With financing, a first estimate would be double that amount to approximately $6B.

The fatalities on the Caltrain line seem to run from about 14 to 20 a year. Generally, these fatalities do not involve vehicles, but rather pedestrians, or suicides. So, it's very hard to see spending $6B for grade-separating all of the crossings. There must be better ways to deal with this issue.

It couldn't hurt for Caltrain to start publishing the accident reports/summaries for the last ten to fifteen years on its web-site, so that we all have the same information with considering these sorts of changes. At least we would all see which are the most dangerous intersections.

Perhaps it makes sense to convert those crossings where the most vehicle-involved accidents have occurred, but let's at least start with having some hard data to work with.

Like this comment
Posted by Rational
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 5, 2015 at 6:59 am

Trench it! 20' deep trench with angled sides to project noise up. Roads bridge over (maybe have a 5' climb). Build station buildings and parking garages on top of the tracks with piers = release real estate to pay for trenching. Just releasing parking lots and bus shelters to build offices, shops and restaurants will bring in millions of dollars at each station. That also creates a transit oriented culture as well ... More things close to stations.

Pop up to bridge over creeks. At 2% grade, 20 feet trench it will take 1/4 mile to pop up and another 1/4 mile to pop down. That's just one or two blocks.

I have never seen regional transit in Europe with road crossings. Whether Germany or Spain, they are all able to somehow make it work.

4 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Mar 5, 2015 at 7:41 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

If this is done one crossing at a time it will be very expensive, take a long time and result in a dis-integrated design.

Please at least think about a more comprehensive and integrated approach.

Why not see this as an opportunity rather than a problem?

One thought is the put the trains underground, use the surface rights above it for housing in the stretches between stations and use the surface above the stations for transit connections and parking. The surface area of the current right of way is very valuable land - particularly in Atherton - and could generate a lot of the needed capital.

Why not take this as an opportunity to design a multi-dimensional, multi-purpose system that uses the existing right-of-way that includes CalTrain, HSR, utility conduits for telephone and internet cables, surface housing with high density housing around each station. And add pedestrian path and a separate bicycle path on the surface along the entire right of way. And include 3 or 4 12" conduits for the technology of the future.

We should think of this right of way as an integrated multi-modal communications spine for the peninsula.

A piecemeal approach will be very expensive.

Do it once and do it right.

1 person likes this
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Mar 5, 2015 at 1:02 pm

Caltrain transports about 40,000 unique people out of a service area of about 3M people. The system is not self-supporting, since the customers are heavily subsidized by taxing people who do not use the system.

We are now seeing buses being used in China that carry 300 people--which use the existing road system, and do not need billions of dollars to create safety zones for these vehicles to use.

The idea of electrifying Caltrain at the $1B (before financing costs are considered) makes it difficult to see spending billions more--with the result that there is no increased capacity.

It's time to consider how to use buses rather than trains for these short hauls that don't transport than many people.

3 people like this
Posted by Old Guy
a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 5, 2015 at 3:02 pm

Grade separations. Menlo Park and Palo Alto could and should have done this in the '90s when there was federal funding available -- Redwood City, San Carlos, and Belmont all did. Elevated is going to be the way, including provision for HSR, because underground either by tunneling or trench and cover, is quite a bit more expensive and rather tricky when you have creeks to deal with. In the case of trench and cover it requires an even greater right of way.

If enough adjacent communities want the tracks underground - fine, so long as those adjacent communities are willing to fund the difference. But it can't be a city by city choice or the tracks will resemble a roller coaster and passengers will be de-boarding to empty their stomachs - not a pleasant experience.

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 5, 2015 at 3:48 pm

Out of the box thinking: Convert the right of way to a paved all-electric bus boulevard - 4 lanes (2 in each direction). Convert crossings to signal light intersections.

You can run buses all day/night. Can run "express" buses all day.

Far less expensive to construct and maintain. Tons of flexibility with buses versus trains. You can almost immediately answer calls for heavier usage than normal (or take buses off line if usage is down). In theory, you could create electric bus "spurs" that connect with major cross arteries (say running Page Mill or Lawrence Expressway, etc.).

1 person likes this
Posted by Rumours
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 5, 2015 at 5:45 pm

[Post removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by Rational
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 6, 2015 at 7:18 am

Trench and don't cover should be cheaper than tunnel or trench and cover. How much can digging, grading the right of way, and putting the tracks back take?
- stations can have more tracks for HSR, light rail as you put parking on top of tracks and open up space around the station
- road to rail connections can get better with a depot on top of tracks with track access from a common hall
- noise still reduces with trenches ... It increases with elevated

Buses will be slow. Cal trains are top speed of 80 mph/ average bullet across the corridor at 50. We should be trying for 100 mph. Hence buses will be a poor investment ... This is a case of cheap is not good.

3 people like this
Posted by Hilary
a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 13, 2015 at 10:02 am

I just almost got stuck on the tracks. I was driving and the gates went down. I waited for the train to pass and the gates went up. Naturally, thinking it ok to proceed, the car in front of me and I went across the tracks and gates immediately started to come back down. At that time I was on the tracks and I already cleared first gate and had to drive fast to clear second gate as it came down. Looking to my right I saw a train heading towards me. This is unacceptable. Caltrain MUST fix this intersection.

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