While the City of Palo Alto is putting its weight behind the importance of restricting access to the rail corridor to prevent future suicides, Caltrain has expressed concern about the cost and challenges that some safety upgrades could present.
Caltrain will begin next week to remove some vegetation along the four miles of tracks that run through Palo Alto, though more extensive removal is waiting until the city and Caltrain conduct outreach with residents who live along the corridor and could be impacted. Caltrain Acting Public Information Officer Tasha Bartholomew said the larger project will cost $30,000.
The city has urged Caltrain in recent meetings and a March 16 letter from City Manager Jim Keene to bring all fencing along the tracks in Palo Alto up to 8 feet to minimize access. Bartholomew said this week that the cost for upgrading fencing along the tracks has yet to be determined.
Mark Simon, Caltrain's executive officer for public affairs, wrote in an April 8 response to Keene that "this expensive and extensive plan may not have the impact we all desire on the underlying problem of mental illness and associated death by suicide" in Palo Alto. Caltrain data indicates that the majority of people who die by suicide on the Caltrain right of way access the tracks at grade crossings and train stations, Simon wrote.
"There is no evidence to suggest widespread access by unfenced areas, or by people climbing fences. Nonetheless, we are prepared to engage in robust consideration of a fencing plan," Simon wrote.
The city has offered to contribute dollars to support fencing upgrades. Keene also wrote in his letter to Caltrain last month that Palo Alto is interested in jointly pursuing federal funds to support suicide prevention along rail corridors.
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. In 2009, a shorter 4-foot fence was placed behind the California Avenue station platform as part of station upgrades in 2009, Bartholomew said.
One of the Joint Powers Board's long-term goals, according to a recent board presentation, is to "ensure continuous fencing is in place on at least one side of the corridor with combination of railroad and private property fencing." Palo Alto city leaders are mostly concerned about the track's east side, which borders Alma Street.
Bartholomew has said that Caltrain hopes to provide the cost estimate for fencing installations before June 30, the end of this fiscal year. She said Caltrain is "supportive of fencing and grade separation as a long-term solutions for safety purposes and restricting access to the rail corridor."
City Councilman Pat Burt called Simon's letter "disappointing."
"Although there are certain measures that they're willing to participate in that we pushed on, many others we got pushback (on)," Burt said at Thursday's meeting of Palo Alto's city-school liaison committee.
"Frankly, a few weeks ago, we were hopeful that we wouldn't need to apply more pressure. I personally think we probably are going to need to do so," he added.
Palo Alto Unified Superintendent Max McGee offered his support of the plans, calling the rail improvements a "big deal." The strategy of restricting access, called "means restriction," is backed by research that many suicide attempts occur with little advance planning during a sudden emotional crisis.
"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 has also proposed consideration of a new technology that could be piloted along the Palo Alto corridor: motion-detection cameras that would alert the city's Emergency Operations Center to a person loitering in the area or a vehicle on the tracks.
Simon cautioned in his letter that this camera technology is "completely untested and untried."
However, Caltrain officials, city staff and the camera's manufacturer will be going out next week to look at potential locations to place the cameras, Bartholomew said.
"Please keep in mind that this technology is experimental and has never been used before on a railroad, but we are open to pursuing research on anything that could help solve this problem," she added.
Caltrain is planning to work with the city and school district to hold a town hall on mental health and suicide prevention and intends to host a media roundtable to discuss responsible coverage of rail suicides.
Keene said Thursday the city also plans to work with local youth well-being coalition Project Safety Net to develop monthly forums to provide further information about related efforts to the community and invite feedback.