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Caltrain hits empty car at Charleston Road tracks

Original post made on Oct 5, 2017

A Caltrain struck an unccoupied car on the tracks at Charleston Road in Palo Alto tonight, resulting in travel delays in the area.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Thursday, October 5, 2017, 9:11 PM

Comments (53)

20 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 5, 2017 at 9:37 pm

Which way was the car heading when it stopped on the train tracks? Since this kind of thing is happening more and more often in recent years, can we finally move the traffic lights so that stopping on the train tracks becomes much more difficult? Right now, just a few moments of distracted driving can easily put a car and a very dangerous position.


7 people like this
Posted by Kevin
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Oct 5, 2017 at 9:55 pm

Kevin is a registered user.

From what I could tell from standing at the corner of Alma and East Charleston, it looked like the car approached Alma from the El Camino direction and made a right turn onto the southbound tracks. The car was rear-ended by the train.


2 people like this
Posted by Odo
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Oct 5, 2017 at 10:26 pm

[Post removed.]


5 people like this
Posted by driving by
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 5, 2017 at 10:28 pm

Kevin is correct. We were at the light. The car had turned right onto the southbound track and was rear ended by the train.


7 people like this
Posted by driving by
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 5, 2017 at 10:46 pm

Just as further information, the car had turned onto the southbound tracks. It appeared that it had driven off the paved area and was stuck on the tracks themselves. When we got to the light, the Palo Alto police had already arrived and gotten the driver out of the car. The police cleared the intersection and appeared to be signaling the train as it approached. The train was braking as it rear ended the car, but it had clearly slowed down from its normal speed. It then pushed the car some way further down the tracks.


8 people like this
Posted by Tim
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 6, 2017 at 6:36 am

We were at the intersection, and it looked like two officers got the driver out of the car just in time. The train hit the car probably less than a minute later. We didn’t really understand why the driver was in the car as the train was approaching. Thankful nobody was hurt.


1 person likes this
Posted by relentlesscactus
a resident of another community
on Oct 6, 2017 at 9:18 am

Deer in the Headlights syndrome is likely. Some people freeze when they realize they are actually about to die.


6 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 6, 2017 at 9:33 am

Please interview the driver to find out how they turned on to the train tracks. [Portion removed.] Unless we find out how these incidents occur in the first place, we cannot prevent them from happening over and over.


8 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 6, 2017 at 10:47 am

I moved from Redwood City to PA 5 months ago...stuff like this doesn't happen 6 miles north! For some odd reason there are always cars waiting on the train track for the signal light to turn green. The security guard on Meadow/Alma is great. He's always telling drivers to move and making sure that everyone around them is aware that stopping on the tracks is not okay! The signal lights have been there for years, I think drivers need a 101 course on driving precautions...Oh wait that's the DMV test!!


Like this comment
Posted by Chris
a resident of University South
on Oct 6, 2017 at 10:47 am

Don’t the police have a way to notify Caltrain? It sounds like there would have been time to get the train to completely stop.

Separate the at-grade crossings.


11 people like this
Posted by Train Neighbor
a resident of Ventura
on Oct 6, 2017 at 10:48 am

Why not install lift gates across tracks to keep cars from turning on the tracks? We could have signs and better lights but a lift gate would be very effective. Then when train approaches the gates across tracks rise as the road gates drop.


8 people like this
Posted by common sense
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Oct 6, 2017 at 12:20 pm

[Post removed.]


10 people like this
Posted by vmshadle
a resident of Meadow Park
on Oct 6, 2017 at 12:30 pm

vmshadle is a registered user.

Sadly, this reminds me of another tragedy involving out-out-of-town visitors a few years back. A woman from the Midwest visiting relatives here also died when she drove the rental car onto the tracks during rush-hour traffic and could not drive off the tracks in time.

In this case, in the dark, the driver mistook the tracks for the roadway.

It's easy for us locals who cross the tracks all the time and know the rules and patterns. What is obvious to us, however, may not be obvious to non-locals trying to navigate the area and may be focused on many other details simultaneously.


2 people like this
Posted by Roger
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 6, 2017 at 12:40 pm

Looks like the driver made his turn before the traffic light not after. Easy to do if your not paying attention to the road signs I guess.glad no one was hurt, I got ticketed for turning right on a no turn on red light,I didn’t see the signs,and that could have been a nasty accident too.driver be vigilant,always.


2 people like this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 6, 2017 at 12:42 pm

Traffic is so bad in this town now, and driver enforcement so lacking that
there are tons of people who just have no idea of the rules of the road, or
the sensible thought it takes to evaluate the position of your car.

People do anything so they do not have to wait through another cycle of
traffic. They end up in the middle of an intersection after the light turns
red and they disrupt and make it worse for everyone else.

San Francisco had ( may still have ) this problem on all of its streets.

I notice when I go the right thing and stop at the light until I am sure there
is room for me on the other side, often the people behind me honk at me.

What is needed here is a simple way to impress people to NOT stop on
the train tracks. Can we paint a grid of diagonal red stripes or something
on the train track section - could it be as simple as that?

How about some digital gizmo that uses radar to detect a non-moving
car on the tracks and sounds an alarm with a recorded voice that says
move off the track ... or maybe even under certain circumstances can
send a warming to any on-coming trains.

This is not that hard of a thing to see or do. Keep your car off the tracks.
There are multiple points at which this can be senses and some action
taken ... so why does this keep happening ... what is it now, about twice a
year it seems like.

How about some signs in plain view at the crossing or on the outside of
buses to remind people of some driving pointers even?


6 people like this
Posted by Louise68
a resident of Menlo Park
on Oct 6, 2017 at 12:49 pm

I am so glad no one was hurt. What a relief!

I wonder if the common over-reliance on GPS had anything to do with the driver's decision to drive onto the tracks? This has been happening much too often, ever since GPS devices came into common use in motor vehiocles.

I think the only practical solution to this -- and it happens far too often -- is for all GPS devices to be upgraded to say "Turn [right or left] just AFTER you cross the train tracks," if the road they need to turn onto is parallel to and next to the tracks, as is the case with Alma.

The following is VERY important information for everyone to know:
Nationwide, there is a large 800 -- toll-free - number painted on the sliver-painted control boxes at all grade crossings that have automatic gates. Call this 800 number in all emergencies involving a train. This number will connect callers to the railroad's dispatchers, who, when told there is a vehicle on the tracks, will radio the engineer to stop the train. The engineer will try to stop the traim, if he or she is told to stop soon enough to get the train to stop.

Trying to get an engineer to stop a train by waving at him or her rarely works, because trains are simply much too heavy to stop quickly. Caltrain trains weigh around 400 to 500 TONS empty, depending on the type and number of cars.

I hope that everyone who reads this article will realize that train tracks are sometimes right next to train tracks that have roads crossing the tracks, and will be vigilant when driving, so they never drive onto train tracks when their GPS devices say "Turn [right or left]" in situations like this one.


8 people like this
Posted by relentlesscactus
a resident of another community
on Oct 6, 2017 at 12:56 pm

"The security guard on Meadow/Alma is great. He's always telling drivers to move and making sure that everyone around them is aware that stopping on the tracks is not okay!"

The new cameras replacing the guards will do this too, right?


1 person likes this
Posted by Maurice
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 6, 2017 at 1:01 pm

"This is not that hard of a thing to see or do. Keep your car off the tracks."

Correct.

The same basic accident (vehicle turning onto tracks) happened in Oxnard in 2015. The train engineer was killed and the driver of the vehicle was charged with manslaughter.

Web Link


4 people like this
Posted by jason
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Oct 6, 2017 at 1:15 pm

So how long are we going to argue that we don't need grade seperations? Put the trains in a trench. Run the road up over that. No more traffic mishaps. They are planning to electrify the trains and run them more often. Things are only going to get worse. We need to move on grade seperations NOW.


1 person likes this
Posted by Don Stanley
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 6, 2017 at 1:29 pm

[Post removed.]


9 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 6, 2017 at 1:53 pm

Once again a rental car. This was once again a probable out of town driver in a rental car depending on GPS not realizing that he or she was crossing a train track or how busy the train track is.

Unless you live in the Bay Area, you cannot be expected to understand just how busy our train tracks are compared to other States and other countries have very few at grade crossings.


4 people like this
Posted by Jeff
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 6, 2017 at 2:29 pm

past time to separate the grade. under (like embarcadeo and oregon) or over (like San Antonio).
Enough already.


5 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 6, 2017 at 3:15 pm

"Why not install lift gates across tracks to keep cars from turning on the tracks?"

Too obvious.


"... it looked like two officers got the driver out of the car just in time."

Why was it necessary for officers to extract the driver? Why didn't the driver just get out of the car? There may be a clue in that.


1 person likes this
Posted by me
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 6, 2017 at 3:31 pm

User Error


1 person likes this
Posted by resident
a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 6, 2017 at 3:36 pm

@relentlesscactus I was not aware that they will be replaced. Well we will eventually see how technology prevents suicides and cars hit by a train in seconds. I'm sure this will cause a lot of Caltrain delays due to the number of people who stop on the tracks.


2 people like this
Posted by Maurice
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 6, 2017 at 4:02 pm

An interesting question just occurred to me: does Caltrain file a claim against CPA's insurance for any damage to their equipment in an accident such as this?


10 people like this
Posted by GPS or no GPS
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 6, 2017 at 4:50 pm

There is no good excuse for turning onto train tracks. Just because the GPS says turn now, doesn't mean you don't have to look where you're going and ensure the path is safe and clear. A GPS app doesn't equal a self-driving car. Frankly, with huge RR crossing arms and all of the other paraphernalia and markings I find it hard to imagine how someone could make such a mistake if they were even HALFWAY paying attention.

[Portion removed.]


11 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 6, 2017 at 5:00 pm

@Maurice,

Why is Caltrain allowed to operate obsolete vehicles incapable of obeying the basic rules of the road? If you were driving a car, truck, or bus and slammed into a stopped vehicle, your insurance company would be the one receiving a claim.


7 people like this
Posted by Maurice
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 6, 2017 at 5:35 pm

"Why is Caltrain allowed to operate obsolete vehicles incapable of obeying the basic rules of the road?"

Under federal law, trains have the right-of-way on the tracks. Cars are not allowed on the tracks. It would be up to the FRA or NTSB to determine if Caltrain's equipment is in compliance, which it probably is. You wouldn't have a legal leg to stand on.

"Just because the GPS says turn now, doesn't mean you don't have to look where you're going and ensure the path is safe and clear. A GPS app doesn't equal a self-driving car."

What would prevent a self-driving car from making the same mistake? I don't know much about self-driving cars, so enlighten us.

Agreed, anyone who leaves the driving to the GPS is destined for an accident.


7 people like this
Posted by Kya
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 6, 2017 at 5:45 pm

So glad to hear the driver is safe. This accident, Where a driver drives onto the actual train tracks happened a while back at the Churchill crossing. They exact same thing. The don’t have these types of RR crossings in Europe. Also, our traffic backups and wait time at traffic signals is so OUT OF THE NORM, that drivers who don’t live here and/or unfamiliar with unusual train crossings are at risk. Grade separations should help, driver frustration will still continue though.


Like this comment
Posted by Juan
a resident of Mountain View
on Oct 6, 2017 at 6:33 pm

It’s a good question, why can’t the train stop? If a Google self-driving car can stop in time, why can’t a train with a computer AND a human stop given several minutes notice? And “right of way” is no excuse, I may have the right of way, but if I crash full speed into a stopped car illegally parked blocking my path, I am at fault. Why do special rules apply to trains?


8 people like this
Posted by Maurice
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 6, 2017 at 6:52 pm

"It’s a good question, why can’t the train stop? If a Google self-driving car can stop in time, why can’t a train with a computer AND a human stop given several minutes notice?"

What a naive question. As noted above, these trains weigh a couple of hundred TONS. They are not little streetcars like in San Francisco which can stop on a dime. Basic physics: they take a lot of time and distance to stop. Whether they can stop in time to avoid and accident depends on how far they are from the obstruction, how fast the train is going and when the engineer receives notice to stop. These variables are going to be different in every situation. I can't believe someone would ask a question like that.


6 people like this
Posted by David Arthur
a resident of another community
on Oct 6, 2017 at 8:26 pm

The solution can be foumd in these two words: grade separations. San Mateo is doing three of them at Hillsdale Station/Bay Meadows. Your turn, Pal Alto, Atherton, Menlo Park!


2 people like this
Posted by Shelly Kay
a resident of Menlo Park
on Oct 6, 2017 at 8:39 pm

With the GPS being so smart (WAZE) maybe it was directing the car to where there is less traffic.


2 people like this
Posted by WilliamR
a resident of another community
on Oct 6, 2017 at 9:23 pm

A little perspective on grade separations--

Burlingame is planning to grade-separate the Broadway crossing. The estimated cost is $250-million, and they expect to begin construction in 2025, if they can find the money to pay for the work. (From the San Mateo Daily Journal, a couple of weeks ago.)


4 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 7, 2017 at 1:41 am

Off-topic, re @Maurice: Basic physics told me that stopping distance is totally independent of weight. It is the minimal friction of steel wheels on steel tracks that makes trains take longer to stop than rubber wheels on concrete. Mass drops out of the energy equation, assuming you lock up all the weight-bearing wheels. The main function of anti-lock brakes allows regular cars to maintain directional control (steering) which would be lost if the wheels totally lock up. "Advanced physics" may provide a different answer for stopping distance proportionality to mass, but I never progressed that far. Friction does turn into heat, and all bets are off when wheels begin to melt.

Related is the ability of electrification to accelerate trains faster, because all wheels can be drive-wheels rather than just spinning the few wheels of the engine at the front (or rear).

Back on topic: If we had a spare billion dollars, should we spend it on grade separation or on housing? Or cure cancer or rebuild Puerto Rico?


8 people like this
Posted by maguro_01
a resident of Mountain View
on Oct 7, 2017 at 4:46 am

maguro_01 is a registered user.

The cost of grade separations increases so fast that it may now be unsupportable.

One thing that may help would be more use of eminent domain to accelerate the projects. If the home/land owners were paid three times market we might see them campaigning to have the trains run down their blocks and through their kitchens. There would be a large net savings from shortening the projects and not paying so many lawyers.


4 people like this
Posted by Juan
a resident of Mountain View
on Oct 7, 2017 at 11:22 am

This is not a physics problem, it's an abject failure of Caltrain's communication infrastructure and Caltrain's management. In this case, someone drove on the tracks, Palo Alto PD showed up and escorted the driver off the tracks, all before Caltrain realized anything was wrong. The fact that someone was stuck on the tracks shouldn't have been a surprise, if Caltrain infrastructure was not stuck in the 19th century. All it would take would be a camera, or motion sensor, or even a cell phone in the hands of the driver for them to realize someone was stuck and turn on the brakes in time. Maybe instead of spending billions on eminent domain, destroying neighborhoods and building walls through the middle of town, Caltrain should spend money bringing their communications up to the 21st century.


9 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 7, 2017 at 1:16 pm

Is anyone keeping count of these train-vs-car collisions in Palo Alto? We lived here for 30 years. Seems to me that 20 years ago, train-vs-car collisions happened in Palo Alto only once every 5 or 10 years. In recent years, these collisions happen several times every year. What has changed to make this collisions so common?

Yes, every single one of these collisions has been the car driver's fault, but each one is a huge disruption to the community in addition to the sometimes loss of life.


Like this comment
Posted by Maurice
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 7, 2017 at 3:37 pm

"Is anyone keeping count of these train-vs-car collisions in Palo Alto?"

PAPD? City manager's iffice?


7 people like this
Posted by Not advanced physics
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 7, 2017 at 9:58 pm

@musical & the 2 people who liked your post: Please look up the concept of momentum, it is not advanced physics...


Like this comment
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 8, 2017 at 12:13 pm

"Basic physics told me that stopping distance is totally independent of weight."

Listen again. The locked wheel braking you describe is the very worst kind. First, it uses the dynamic coefficient of friction, which is substantially less than the static coefficient turning wheels use. Second, it grinds a flat spot into the wheels that is expensive to remove and gives a noisy bumpy ride if not. It's basic physics 1.0001.

So weight is back. You gotta dump that onehalfemveesquared energy somewhere.


Like this comment
Posted by Brake time
a resident of another community
on Oct 8, 2017 at 1:58 pm

Just curious if anyone knowledgeable about trains can say what wheels have braking capability? All of them or just the wheels on the engines?


1 person likes this
Posted by WilliamR
a resident of another community
on Oct 8, 2017 at 3:23 pm

@ Brake Time--

All of the train car wheels have brakes. The Bombardier cars have disc brakes, but I'm not sure about the type on the older gallery cars, disc or drum.


Like this comment
Posted by Brake time
a resident of another community
on Oct 8, 2017 at 4:16 pm

Thanks WilliamR.


9 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 8, 2017 at 4:49 pm

While the physics discussion is interesting, Maurice did a good job of avoiding answering my original question and sending the discussion off after a red hearing.

The question remains, why is this one mode of transportation allowed to operate 19th century equipment in a 21st century world and ignore the rules of the road that all other ground vehicles observe?

If I am driving a gravel truck and I slam into a stopped car, I don't get to say my truck has bad brakes, or slick tires, or it was overloaded and too heavy. I am required to operate the vehicle at speeds that are safe for the conditions.


5 people like this
Posted by YIMBY Rising
a resident of University South
on Oct 8, 2017 at 5:00 pm

"Traffic is so bad in this town now, and driver enforcement so lacking that
there are tons of people who just have no idea of the rules of the road, or
the sensible thought it takes to evaluate the position of your car."

So bad traffic is responsible for making people stupid? People who have no idea of the rules of the road should not be issued drivers licenses, as they are not qualified to operate a motor vehicle. If they are unable to determine the position of their car, then they are either doubly stupid or need to shove the smartphone and pay attention while they are driving.


6 people like this
Posted by steve
a resident of Palo Verde School
on Oct 8, 2017 at 5:28 pm

oh boy, oh boy, oh boy...

here's the liberal elite again, ready to pry your retirement money from your BARE HANDS!

damn techno-elite, trying to pickpocket my hard earned money to place some computerized gate to keep stupid folk from driving on the train tracks

how about just don't be stupid?

don't turn on to train tracks... if we need some fancy expensive gate techno computer chip monstrosity to tell us not to do that, then we've got a big problem.


Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 8, 2017 at 5:49 pm

@Curm, no matter what coefficient you use, it's multiplied by the weight to get the stopping force. The energy is dumped into heat somewhere, and yes, locked wheels are poor at heat dissipation, focusing all of it at the small skidding surface. It's better to skid brake-shoes against drums or disks, since we can optimize the heat distribution. After we are electrified we'll have the option to convert the stopping force back into useful electricity.


4 people like this
Posted by Maurice
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 8, 2017 at 11:09 pm

"why is this one mode of transportation allowed to operate 19th century equipment in a 21st century world"

There is no law against it and the trains are operating fully within existing law. Call your senator or write your congressperson if you want trains to be outlawed.

"and ignore the rules of the road that all other ground vehicles observe?"

They do not "ignore the rules of the road". Under federal law trains have the right-of-way over automotive cross traffic. How many times does this have to be explained to you before it sinks in?

Get your facts right before making these statements. It took about 10 seconds of Google searching to find this:

file:///C:/Users/cclem139/Downloads/Grade%20Crossing%20Resource%20Guide%20022015%20(1).pdf

"By law, trains have the right-of-way at highway-rail grade crossings since they cannot stop or change direction to avert collisions with motor vehicles or people."


3 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 9, 2017 at 10:36 am

There's a study paper, "Improved Traffic Control Measures to Prevent Incorrect Turns at Highway-Rail Grade Crossings" available at Web Link

I'm not sure if there's anything other than gates that close off the tracks (e.g., as used in some places in the UK) that will stop people who blindly follow their GPS nav directions. I do think it would be a good idea for the GPS nav manufacturers to add warnings to the directions when a turn is in close proximity to tracks -- in this case, say, "Turn right in 200 ft AFTER crossing railroad tracks" (or "cross railroad tracks then turn right in 200 ft" -- research might suggest which wording works better)


8 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 9, 2017 at 7:33 pm

Maurice said:

"By law, trains have the right-of-way at highway-rail grade crossings since they cannot stop or change direction to avert collisions with motor vehicles or people."

Wow. Nothing more perfectly epitomizes what is wrong with passenger rail technology than the sentence above and it is actually written into a U.S. government document.

"cannot stop or change direction to avoid collisions". Any other industry would be embarrassed to have that written about their technology, but Caltrain expects Palo Altans to spend $250M-$1,000M on infrastructure to make their obsolete technology compatible with a modern populated environment.

The reason trains can't stop is not because they are too heavy. If trains had rubber tires and massive brakes they could stop. The reason trains can't stop is because it is cheaper and easier to pay politicians to write a law, than it is to invest in and manage the R&D needed to advance railroad technology out of the 19th century and into the 21st.

Imagine what the world would be like if the car, bus, and truck manufacturers had special laws that allowed them to continue to manufacture and sell 19th century technology.


2 people like this
Posted by Maurice
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 9, 2017 at 11:19 pm

[Post removed.]


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