Train part catapults into Palo Alto car | October 12, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - October 12, 2012

Train part catapults into Palo Alto car

Large, heavy piece smashed into parked car after flying over homes, street

by Sue Dremann

A mysterious object that slammed into a parked Chevrolet Suburban in Palo Alto earlier this week has been identified as part of a train. But the part is from a Union Pacific locomotive, not a commuter train, Caltrain spokeswoman Christine Dunn said on Thursday, Oct. 11.

The object, a 1-foot-long, 20-pound hunk of molded material with two large bolts, ripped into the car sometime between Monday night, Oct. 8, or Tuesday morning, initially confounding Palo Alto police and the vehicle's owner.

Was it a bird? Was it a plane?

Resident Daniel Peters discovered the huge gash in the tailgate of his black SUV when he went to take his children to school on Tuesday morning. The heavy object was embedded amid the torn metal and could not be extracted, he said.

Peters said he last saw his intact vehicle in front of his home in the 4200 block of Newberry Court, on Monday at about 10 p.m. Newberry ends at Park Boulevard, which parallels the train tracks.

At first, he thought the car had been vandalized, but he had second thoughts when he saw the size of the object and the trajectory of the large slash. It seemed to have come from above.

"My sister said, 'No, a part of a plane fell on it,'" he said Tuesday afternoon.

Peters gazed toward the train tracks across the street, which are hidden by a row of houses. He marveled that an object of that size could be hurled with such force that it would fly over homes where people were sleeping, cross Park and slice a hole into his car on the side street.

"It must have exploded. It's hard to believe it came this far," he said.

Palo Alto police Sgt. Kara Apple said on Tuesday that traveling at high speed, a shattered object of such size could be flung quite far.

"We were all saying, 'Thank God no one was outside. Thank God a car wasn't driving down the street and was struck,'" she said.

Police did not immediately know what the object could be. But Peters' body-shop repairman had an idea. It looked like part of a train fan housing, and it was marked "UP 9999," Peters said. He said he did not yet know the extent and cost to repair the vehicle, but the body shop said the damage was extensive, Peters added.

Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt initially said on Tuesday that there were no reports of a Union Pacific incident in Palo Alto.

But Dunn on Wednesday said Caltrain would work with authorities to identify the object and would inspect its trains. On Thursday morning, she had an answer.

"Caltrain has inspected all of its equipment and none of our equipment is missing any parts. We have also inspected the part and identified it as the cover of cooling fan, which is located on the top of a locomotive. We have also identified the part as coming from a Union Pacific locomotive. We are in the processing of notifying Union Pacific," she stated in an email.

Palo Alto police spokesman Lt. Zach Perron on Thursday referred further comment to Union Pacific.

"I received word that the part has been identified as coming from a Union Pacific locomotive that had stopped in San Francisco, according to a colleague of mine with the San Mateo County Transit Police," he wrote in an email.

Hunt said that Union Pacific is continuing to investigate and officials are in touch with local authorities.

"UP locomotive 9999 was not in California on the evening in question," he said in an email on Thursday. "Since we are still in the process of investigating, I am unable to comment on what Caltrain is sharing with you."

But he said he should know more on Friday.


Additional photos of the damaged Suburban have been posted on Palo Alto Online.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at


Like this comment
Posted by Andreas
a resident of Ventura
on Oct 11, 2012 at 3:33 pm

I live on Park Blvd. The trains go past my backyard. In 14 years, I've found two railroad spikes in my yard. These sprung loose from the railroad ties, flew over, and landed in my yard. They travelled easily 20 yards and over a 12-14 foot hedge. The spikes are big and heavy. Yes, if they had hit someone, it would have killed them.

Like this comment
Posted by Jan H.
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 11, 2012 at 5:28 pm

My son is a rail fan, and he said it sounded like the part was something from the housing of a fan on the engine. However, such a loss would have caused the train to stop somewhere farther down the tracks.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 11, 2012 at 6:51 pm

An hour ago on the original thread, Railroader had interesting input about a failed dynamic brake fan on UP 9989.

Web Link

Maybe the editor will concatenate this.

Like this comment
Posted by Bill
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 11, 2012 at 10:05 pm

I told my Aunt Tesse to not take the keys without telling me when she did her midnight run.

Like this comment
Posted by Old Palo Alto
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 12, 2012 at 12:06 am

Here is the train part that hit the truck. Not the blades were broken off and the bolts that hold them on are in tact.

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 12, 2012 at 7:31 am

Excellent find, Old Palo Alto. Whether 1250 or 2000 rpm, that thing would really go flying, as seen in the YouTube link on other thread.

Like this comment
Posted by Jake
a resident of another community
on Oct 12, 2012 at 9:20 am

"old Palo Alto"

Way to go! That looks like it could be 99.9% the part.

Like this comment
Posted by humm
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 12, 2012 at 12:04 pm

If so, should we conclude people take higher risk to live or be around rail roads?

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 12, 2012 at 12:15 pm

I don't have enough zeros in my basket to quantify the risk increment.

Like this comment
Posted by Trench it. A solid wall would contain thrown objects.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 12, 2012 at 1:17 pm

One more good reason to trench the train. Good grief!

Like this comment
Posted by engineer from UPRR
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 4, 2013 at 11:26 am

The railroad spikes don't come out of the ties and fly over. People put them on the rails and the train will hit them at a high speed. Thus, they go flying outwards and I've seen it as an engineer. If dumb people stop putting objects on the rails, then the objects won't fly into your yard.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.