After fatal accident, changes to rail crossings debated | April 22, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 22, 2011

After fatal accident, changes to rail crossings debated

Signal-light changes 'feasible' — but not planned, Palo Alto official says

by Sue Dremann

To some longtime Palo Alto residents, last Friday's (April 15) fatal crash between Caltrain and a car at the Charleston Road crossing was an accident waiting to happen.

This week, a city official said that a measure that could improve the safety of the intersection "definitely is feasible" but it is not currently planned.

Jaime Rodriguez, Palo Alto's chief transportation official, was responding to inquiries posed by several residents after Indiana resident Judy Goldblatt was killed in her rented Nissan Altima, which had become stuck on the tracks.

Witnesses said the vehicle appeared to be blocked in by heavy rush-hour traffic as it traveled east.

Goldblatt and her husband, Dr. Lawrence Goldblatt, dean emeritus of the Indiana University School of Dentistry, were in town visiting her sister.

Volunteers with Track Watch, an anti-suicide patrol, and others in the community have suggested that traffic lights at the Charleston, East Meadow and Churchill crossings should be added to the west side of the tracks.

Currently, the lights are on the east side, leaving a buffer zone for about one car between Alma Street and the train tracks. Eastbound drivers often misjudge the space, thinking it is long enough to fit two cars, or they get caught on the tracks when the light changes, residents said.

Track watchers said they have seen many harrowing close calls.

"It really was an accident waiting to happen," Grace Pariente said.

Susan Solomon agreed, saying she's seen cars trapped about once an hour.

"The impatient drivers frequently speed up when approaching the tracks, apparently trying to both cross the tracks and pass through the intersection on the green light. If the light turns red, that car may be trapped behind another car in the small area between Alma and the tracks," she said.

Moving the traffic lights at Caltrain crossings from the east side of the tracks to the west side to minimize potential vehicle jams on the tracks is possible, Rodriguez said this week.

However, he added that to do so would entail a different kind of signal configuration, which includes a pre-signal, he said.

Pre-signals are timed to allow cars to get over the tracks and still make the light to cross Alma Street or turn right. However, it would eliminate the ability to turn right on red, he said.

In addition, a pre-signal would require the installation of two more crossing gates — the "arms" that come down to block traffic from the tracks, he said.

He cautioned that a pre-signal doesn't necessarily always stop train-vehicle collisions. "There is no specific signal operation that will guarantee to keep someone from being stuck," he said.

The rail line is currently undergoing changes as part of a $5.8 million Caltrain safety-improvement project. The current Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) Phase 1 grade-crossing safety project includes four Palo Alto sites: Charleston, East Meadow, Churchill and Alma Street at Palo Alto Avenue. But the safety features, which include pedestrian gates and sidewalks, do not include any significant safety enhancements for vehicles, Rodriguez said.

The four-gate option and west-side signals "are not an option in the near future," he said.

Phase I enhancements have been completed at Charleston and East Meadow and are in the works at Churchill and Alma. A second phase will replace tracks throughout the intersections, he said.

A $699,000 safety-enhancement project (Phase III) calls for signal modifications and replacing the crossing arms at East Meadow and Churchill, he said. Caltrain would be in charge of the design and the city would do the construction in fiscal year 2012-13, he said. What the signal modifications would be is not yet clear, he said.

Caltrain has not yet responded to whether it thinks such changes are feasible.

Friday's accident is not the first fatality involving a vehicle on Palo Alto's tracks.

In 2007, Maria de Jesus Nieblas, 21, a Sunnyvale driver, was killed at the Meadow train crossing when her westbound car lurched in front of a northbound train.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at


Like this comment
Posted by Jon
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Apr 19, 2011 at 5:17 pm

These intersections are confusing even to drivers who've grown up in Palo Alto and are familiar with trains (I'm one of 'em), and frankly they're a disgrace. Moving the traffic lights west would obviously solve the problem, and what's the downside of it?

The current intersection designs are a relic of when traffic was much lighter, people were more courteous, and the commuter trains were slower. Now, they're just a magnet for death, and for litigation.

Pull your socks up, Palo Alto. The trucks should be rolling to make these changes tomorrow.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 19, 2011 at 5:24 pm

Don't forget the bicycles too, there needs to be enough space for a flood of bikes and pedestrians to wait during school commute time - particularly at Churchill.

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Apr 19, 2011 at 5:29 pm

I sent the following letter to many Bay Area elected officials about safety issues on Caltrain property, and public spaces in/around Caltrain crossings--

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Spokker
a resident of another community
on Apr 19, 2011 at 10:58 pm

Bottom line: Never, ever stop on the tracks or block an intersection (these involve the same concept). If there is not enough room for you to move forward and clear the tracks or intersection, do not move forward. It doesn't matter whether or not you know the area.

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Posted by Spokker
a resident of another community
on Apr 19, 2011 at 11:04 pm

Mr. Martin, you no doubt put a lot of effort into that letter of yours, but I wonder if it would be better served increasing safety for drivers, pedestrians and cyclists in the context of car vs. ped/bike/other car accidents.

As a pedestrian, I would much rather be crossing the Caltrain tracks than using marked crosswalks.

I saw a report in another city in which a blind woman waited 5 minutes to use a crosswalk because cars would not stop for her. I would much rather see issues related to the poor driving skills of drivers and their complete lack of awareness for pedestrians and cyclists.

But then again, going after drivers means not going after a big bad taxpayer funded public agency, which is much too juicy to resist, no matter how safe Caltrain actually is compared to other forms of transportation.

Like this comment
Posted by Greg Kruger
a resident of Mountain View
on Apr 19, 2011 at 11:09 pm

I already posted on another site. Speaking with some folks at a Starbucks the other day, we all seem to agree on something a bit different. The basic rule here is simple:

Train Wins

That said, this is not about people getting confused, lines or lights or signs in the wrong place. As drivers, we all have control of this problem, we alone are required to solve it.

If you can't clear the tracks, or it is confusing, or it is close, or a Fire Engine is coming, or there is a girl scout troop selling cookies, Never, ever, ever, ever, proceed onto any railroad tracks unless you know that you can clear the tracks.

I am saddened by the deaths. But they alone had control of it. It isn't Palo Alto's fault, not Cal Trains fault, not the VTA. Not the school children, not the car in front of you, You can prevent this from ever happening again if you simply never begin to cross any tracks that you cannot obviously successfully cross.

Is it worth being in a hurry? Let people behind you get mad because you chose to wait until that car in front of you actually turns right.

The Humans, the drivers, we are what needs fixing.

Train Wins.

Sorry for the repeat of other posts, but every time I see someone blaming the location of lights, lines, signs etc for this, I think we are making excuses.

Like this comment
Posted by sandy
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 20, 2011 at 11:22 am

I agree with Greg Kruger

Like this comment
Posted by tracey Chen
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Apr 20, 2011 at 11:33 am

Well, if people would just pay attention, this really wouldn't be an issue. The people who get stuck are either not thinking or aren't too bright, because they get stuck only if they're one of those who puts being right on the tail of the car in front of them ahead of safety. There is NO good reason to squeeze your car into a space you aren't sure is big enough that if it isn't means you could die (along with anyone hit by flying debris from your totaled car). The only other reason people could get stuck is this: If you're traveling along at normal speed, crossing the tracks, when the car in front of you stops even though it's green. That happens if a pedestrian or bike is crossing and the car in front of you wants to turn, and then has to wait. And because of the little rise in the road where the tracks are, the cars coming over the tracks from behind may not always be able to even see a pedestrian starting to cross (from either side). Otherwise, I'd say put a big sign over the road that says something like "Only ONE small car will fit on the other side of the tracks; don't try it dummy." But since there is also the risk of getting temporarily stuck because of unseen pedestrians, I guess they should do something more. However, eliminating the right turn on red option will be horrible. That corridor is already a nightmare because they cut down the lanes.

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Posted by Rich
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 20, 2011 at 12:06 pm

I'm concerned that the recent "safety improvements" may actually have DECREASED safety at the crossings, by eliminating a possible emergency escape (namely, driving off the road and into the ditch running between the tracks and the chain wire fence).

In the past, I would be very sure to approach a level crossing while in the rightmost lane (just in case I might need to use this particular emergency manoeuvre) -- but now that the new pedestrian gates are in place, it doesn't really seem to matter anymore which lane I'm in.

Further, I'm not at all convinced that the new pedestrian gates really accomplish anything -- after all, someone bent on suicide will simply walk around the gates anyway, so what was the point?

Like this comment
Posted by Larry Cohn
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 20, 2011 at 6:34 pm

<< The only other reason people could get stuck is this: If you're traveling along at normal speed, crossing the tracks, when the car in front of you stops even though it's green. >>

You've just violated the law and should be ticketed. There have been several posts on this quoting the California Vehicle Code. It clearly states that you may not enter the crossing UNLESS THERE IS ROOM FOR YOUR VEHICLE ON THE OTHER SIDE. What could be simpler? If you obey the law, the situation you describe above cannot occur. If there is insufficient room for your vehicle on the opposite side of the tracks, it is illegal for you to start to cross the tracks; it is therefore not possible to get stuck on them. This is the law, simple logic and common sense all rolled into one. I don't understand why people have such a hard time grasping it.

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 20, 2011 at 8:45 pm

I appreciate Wayne Martin's analysis
This helpful description of the situation deserves attention from various politicians/public officials
Pls follow up and post later if you get any response(s)AND if any are substantive
Let's see if anyone with power decides to exert some effort and interest on this problem

Like this comment
Posted by Spokker
a resident of another community
on Apr 20, 2011 at 10:46 pm

The least important thing about railroad safety is not the physical safety features, but the attitudes of those who use the crossing.

Like this comment
Posted by JoAnn
a resident of Ventura
on Apr 21, 2011 at 2:56 am

My god, the comments. Do we really want the death penalty for a brief lapse of awareness? Mitigating harm is what this situation calls for, not making people behave perfectly at all times.

4 gates to completely block the tracks is a lousy idea. You are going to trap someone ON the tracks. Better yet, get the trains below grade where they belong.

Like this comment
Posted by Needs Fixing
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 21, 2011 at 7:54 am

Yesterday I checked out the limit line on Charleston at Alma and indeed it was moved way back some five feet towards the train track when Charleston was resurfaced. Now only one vehicle can safely stack against the limit line at Alma. If a second vehicle follows the first vehicle, which often happens, it's rear end will be left over the train tracks.

Most of us are now familiar with the fact that only one vehicle may stack safely on Charleston between the limit line and the train tracks. However, this does not stop one vehicle following the vehicle in front and having it's rear end left on the train tracks. Unfortunately, this is what happened to the nice lady from Indianapolis.

No doubt our Transportation Department will hire a consultant for $150,000 who will tell Council what we all know: "stop all vehicles west of the train tracks BEFORE you flash the red signal light and close the crossing gates."

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Posted by sad but avoidable by her
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 23, 2011 at 2:34 pm

It WAS her fault though!! You never, never, never get your car ON, or Near the rail tracks!!! Anyone should know that. You WAIT until the space is available. Too many people just are too much in a hurry to think of the catastrophe that can occur.
Just be smart and don't be stupid, and abide by the signs.

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Posted by Smith
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 23, 2011 at 9:46 pm

I am glad to see there are still people out there with common sense and some driving know-how. I drive eastbound over the CalTrain tracks every morning at W. Meadow during morning rush hour with all the school kids on their bikes. I am amazed by the idiocy of both drivers and cyclists alike. People cram themselves where there is no room expecting the light to miraculously turn green, they cut off others left and right, all the while putting their lives at risk. There is NO REASON for anyone to be "stuck" sitting on the tracks. Flat-out: you aren't following the law!

I have noticed a similar problem at the intersection of Arastradero at El Camino in the mornings. Parents heading westbound down that corridor ALWAYS sit in the middle of the intersection, usually three or four cars deep when their light turns red and the southbound cross traffic gets a green. Um, excuse me, but REALLY, what happened to waiting until there was room for you on the other side?! Yes, I am *that* annoying person always laying on the horn until you finally get your tush out of the way...and my full intention is to embarrass the hell out of you in front of your kids.

To reiterate what everyone else said--don't be stupid and follow the law. Perhaps educating the public on road/rail safety would be better money spent than re-vamping the already-re-vamped rail crossings.

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Posted by resident
a resident of another community
on Oct 1, 2011 at 10:47 am

I really think we should just close down the intersections such as Churchill and Charleston. We can use crossing bridges such as Embarcadero and university so when would we want to risk people's life? Also, crossing trainings and bell are really a noise problem to the residents. From Churchill to embarcadero it's only about 5 minutes drive. It won't take more than 20 minutes to ride either. what is the point to have those streets?

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Posted by not safe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 1, 2011 at 10:08 pm

closing the four at grade crossing is not a safe alternative. It would force more cars into few crossings creating accidents. It would force Gunn students and JLS students to use San Antonio to get school. As for the noise, its a consequence of living next to railroad tracks.