As the Palo Alto school district continues to work on its campuses to respond to a teen suicide cluster, the city has proposed to Caltrain a series of potential safety improvements for the Palo Alto corridor in the hopes that additional measures will help prevent future suicide attempts.
The city is asking Caltrain to upgrade the fencing along the four miles of tracks that run through Palo Alto to minimize access; allow the city to install motion-detection cameras that would alert the city's Emergency Operations Center if it detects a person loitering in the area or a vehicle on the rail line's right of way; and continue its removal of trees and shrubs to increase visibility along the corridor, according to a letter summarizing a March 6 meeting between city staff, including City Manager James Keene, Police Chief Dennis Burns and Director of Emergency Operations Ken Dueker, and Caltrain officials, including CEO Jim Harnett and Deputy CEO of Safety and Security Gigi Harrington.
"While we recognize that Caltrain has responsibility for the entire rail corridor, the disproportionate number of teen suicides along the four-mile corridor in Palo Alto and suicides in general indicate a special crisis along the Palo Alto stretch and warrants further analysis, focus and resources," Keene wrote in the March 16 letter to Mark Simon, Caltrain's executive director for public affairs.
The strategy of means restriction has become an even more urgent focus for the city this year, backed by research that many suicide attempts occur with little advance planning during a sudden emotional crisis and that "intent isn't all that determines whether an attempter lives or dies; means also matter," according to Means Matter, a Harvard University School of Public Health suicide-prevention project working to promote activities that reduce people's access to lethal means of suicide.
City staff initiated meetings last month with Caltrain to explore what can be done more "aggressively" on this front, said Director of Community Services Rob de Geus, who is also one of the city's two leads on youth well-being coalition Project Safety Net. Project Safety Net also recently hired a temporary contractor to conduct research on means restriction in conjunction with the Office of Emergency Services.
At a meeting of the city/school liaison committee Thursday morning, Councilman Pat Burt expressed a sense of urgency in moving forward on safety improvements with Caltrain.
"We frankly are trying to convince Caltrain to move on these measures more aggressively and more comprehensively," Burt said, adding that Caltrain's budget for such measures is "inadequate in our minds."
He said the city has expressed to Caltrain a "willingness to devote capital resources to supplement their budget." Keene also wrote in his March 16 letter that the city is interested in jointly pursuing federal funds to support suicide prevention along rail corridors.
Keene's letter to Simon requested a cost estimate for making sure all fences on both sides of the Palo Alto corridor are 8 feet high. It also plans a meeting between the city and Caltrain to discuss piloting an "experimental camera system" along the rail line that offers "smart" analytics that can detect people and their behavior, such as someone lingering near the tracks, and send that information immediately to the city's Emergency Operations Center.
"When it comes to improving safety on our railroad tracks, we're listening and trying to be open to the community," Tasha Bartholomew, acting public information officer for Caltrain, told the Weekly Friday.
She said that Caltrain hopes to provide the cost estimates before June 30, the end of this fiscal year. Caltrain is also researching the impacts fencing and tree-removal might have on rail operations and neighbors who live adjacent to the tracks, Bartholomew said.
"We really just want to provide support and be there to help with this community issue," Bartholomew said. "We're trying to become part of the solution."
Key to moving forward on Palo Alto's proposals, Burt and Keene said Thursday, is a shift in Caltrain's focus, which is on their entire system rather than Palo Alto specifically.
"We've seen nothing to date publicly that Caltrain is recognizing this as a real existential risk to their transportation system," he said. "Part of the discussion is that we need to approach the Caltrain board, in parallel with efforts to address this with their executive leadership, for them to recognize that the status quo and the traditional means of doing this and prioritization that they placed on this historically is inadequate today."
"This is a triage situation," Keene said Thursday. "We're looking at the most critical location, which is undisputedly here in Palo Alto. We're offering potentials to be able to assist to ensure that triage."
Caltrain has also asked if the Palo Alto Police Department can assume oversight of the track guards who monitor several Palo Alto crossings. The guards, who are employed by Vallejo-based Val Security, are currently overseen by the Community Services Department, but management of their contract will soon be shifted to the police department, according to a city staff report.
City Council will also consider Monday contract and budget amendments to cover an additional $123,000 that was spent at Keene's discretion this year to increase the track guards' coverage and enough funds to cover the current level of services through June 30, according to a staff report. Funding for track security is drawn from the $2 million in funds earmarked for Project Safety Net from the Stanford Medical Center Development Agreement Fund.
Shortly after the city/school liaison meeting Thursday morning, the Caltrain board met in San Carlos to approve a resolution expressing concern about continuing deaths by suicide, reaffirming its commitment to "being an active partner in mental health and suicide prevention efforts."
The resolution also advocates for "responsible" media coverage of suicides and commits Caltrain to participating in "activities that educate the news media about the benefits of restraint in reporting on these incidents."
A presentation made at the board meeting also mentions a long-term goal regarding fencing: "ensure continuous fencing is in place on at least one side of the corridor with combination of railroad and private property fencing." Since 2005, the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (JPB) has spent almost $9 million on fence installations under four capital projects, according to Caltrain, mostly funded through external grants.
"They want to be part of the prevention collaborative," de Geus said. "but we'll have to see. We want to see action."