Palo Alto will start installing cameras at four rail crossings this week as part of its transition from human guards stationed at the tracks to computer screens monitored from a remote site.
The cameras, which comprise a $1.5-million integrated video system, are being added as part of the city's effort to detect and deter people on the tracks. The council approved the camera contract with the firm G4S Secure Integration last June.
The system will include four cameras on a single pole at three rail crossings: Churchill Avenue, Meadow Drive and Charleston Road. At the Palo Alto Avenue crossing, there will be two cameras on two separate poles, according to an announcement from the city. Each camera will have thermal capability; the ability to pan, tilt and zoom; and the capacity to view objects up to 1,000 feet down the corridor in variable light and weather conditions, according to the city.
They will also be equipped with "artificial intelligence to automatically detect certain behaviors and create alerts to law enforcement," according to the announcement. Off-site monitors from G4S will also be watching the live feed from a remote location and will have the ability to make live voice announcements and provide direction to people on the tracks, according to the city.
The new cameras represent a significant transformation for Palo Alto's track-monitoring program, which the city launched in November 2009 in response to a cluster of teenage suicides at the tracks. The TrackWatch program initially relied on citizen volunteers; the city later hired security guards to watch the tracks.
The council approved the switch to cameras after a 2016 pilot program at the East Meadow crossing led staff to conclude that cameras are more effective than humans, particularly at night. Staff from the Community Services Department reported last year that the long-distance cameras, combined with detection algorithms provided "significantly longer viewing distance" and lower "fatigue and stress" levels for those monitoring.
"While it may or may not be true that a 'human presence' at the tracks would provide a deterrent to someone contemplating suicide, it is absolutely clear that the IDS ("intrusion detection system) provides a more effective means of notifying law enforcement and Caltrain, especially in darkness," the report stated.
The technology will also help the city reduce its costs for track monitoring. Palo Alto has been spending $1.7 million annually for the security guards. After the camera system is installed, the annual cost for monitoring and maintenance will be $325,000, according to the city's announcement. After installation, there will be a transition period of a few months in which both the guards and the cameras will be in operation, the announcement states.
Along with new cameras, the city plans to install additional signage to inform people that the area is under surveillance. The council is also considering a more long-term and expensive strategy: separating the tracks from the streets at the four grade crossings.
The council plans to select a grade-separation alternative by the end of this year. Planning staff is currently in the process of winnowing down the list of alternatives from 34 to 16 and is scheduled to present its latest analysis to the council's Rail Committee on Wednesday morning.