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Caltrain hits unoccupied car at Charleston crossing

Original post made on Feb 12, 2018

Caltrain service was halted in Palo Alto on Monday evening after a southbound train crashed into an unoccupied car at the Charleston Road crossing, causing it to catch fire.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Monday, February 12, 2018, 8:06 PM

Comments (45)

23 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 12, 2018 at 8:21 pm

What is with all these cars parking on the train tracks? Aren't the train signs big enough? Or are these collisions intentional? Another car tried parking on the train tracks in Atherton on Saturday, with the same result as this one.


1 person likes this
Posted by bike commuter
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Feb 12, 2018 at 8:50 pm

I heard the collision as it happened today. It was a powerful bang. I expected the worst. Fortunately no one was hurt.


16 people like this
Posted by Rolling Eyes
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 12, 2018 at 8:55 pm

Hurried drivers lose their minds. It's their lives, can't blame anyone else.


1 person likes this
Posted by Q
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Feb 12, 2018 at 9:29 pm

Question.

What happens to the owner legally if his/ her car parked (got stucked) on tracks? Besides losing a car, nothing else?

:)


15 people like this
Posted by bike commuter
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Feb 12, 2018 at 9:36 pm

It is more like a confused driver misguided by GPS and turned into the train track. It happens once every six month. Uber aggressive drivers who park on the track usually operate during the daytime in their Porsche or BMW.


41 people like this
Posted by Monet fan
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Feb 12, 2018 at 9:50 pm

When we were new to the area in the 80's, once and only once did I pull up and stop eastbound at that light behind someone at the crossing such that the back of my car was clearly over those tracks. It was a stupid thing to do and I knew it was a stupid thing to do but I thought the person ahead was going to turn and keep going and then they didn't.

The warning lights started to flash, the light changed to clear us out, so the car ahead was going to go, right?

Only it didn't. I will never know why. The arms came down. That car sat there. I honked helplessly. That car sat there. Unbelievable. The train was bearing down and still that car sat there and finally the only thing I could think of was to push it out of my way with my car (cross traffic was not moving yet because they saw).

Just as I went to do that they mercifully finally drove forward (the light was yellow by that point) and I hit the gas hard in my escape as I turned right as the train thundered by.

Probably the freakiest worst moment I've ever done to myself, and a story I told my kids when they got old enough to drive so that they would never, ever risk anything remotely like it.

I am so glad the people today got out of their car in time!


45 people like this
Posted by Ed
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Feb 12, 2018 at 9:52 pm

I think an interesting follow-up story would be to simply interview the driver. Why did you stop on the tracks? Which of the numerous warning signs all around did you not notice? How about those gates, bells and blinking lights? Or was it the train light and blaring horn that eventually clued you in to your situation?


18 people like this
Posted by RRdanger
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 12, 2018 at 10:51 pm

The crossings are dangerous for drivers unfamiliar with them. A car second in line at the light goes forward expecting the car in front of it to turn right, but that car decides to stop and wait the light. Now the second in line car is stuck on the tracks, and sometimes boxed in by one behind it. Everyone familiar with this crossing knows to never cross the tracks until there is a clearing on the other side. Hurried drivers and lost and confused out of towners sometimes make the mistake of advancing onto the tracks because they assume the car in front will go right on red.

Is there a “DO NOT STOP ON TRACKS” sign? There should be a “NO RIGHT TURN IN RED” sign too.


36 people like this
Posted by some sarcasm
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 12, 2018 at 10:57 pm

Yeah, those train tracks have only been there 160 years. People need more time to get used to them.


17 people like this
Posted by DB
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Feb 12, 2018 at 11:08 pm

Time to build that over-bridge or under-bridge or whatever is suitable as per Palo Alto's budget. Every other day I see some bozo on the tracks hoping the driver in front of him will take that free right turn soon enough.


24 people like this
Posted by RRdanger
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 12, 2018 at 11:13 pm

@sarcasm. I said out of towners might not know the dangers of these particular tracks. Possibly teens, new drivers, and tourists too. Not everyone is a local, and not all RR crossings are alike. There are two crossings and two sets of lights here: the tracks and Alma St. Throw in speeding traffic on Alma, right turn on red rules, plus bicycles and pedestrians. There is a lot going on at those intersections.


8 people like this
Posted by James
a resident of another community
on Feb 13, 2018 at 6:43 am

Light the intersection up like Levi Stadium. Paint robust fluorescent yellow and red striping for several yards before and on the grade crossing along with large signage that reads DO NOT STOP ON STRIPING and DO NOT TURN CAR ONTO RR TRACKS. Install some sort of proximity sensor that activates when the weight of a vehicle (not a train) crosses into the right of way that activates flashing strobes, red lights, etc. Put the lights and signs at drivers' eye level so that those whose heads are buried in their phones will notice something other that what is on the screen.


30 people like this
Posted by ndn
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 13, 2018 at 8:24 am

People unfamiliar with intersection that are following GPS guidelines "turn left/right at the intersection" will many times confuse the tracks or its side lane with a road because in the dark you are not able to see as well as during the day and assume that you are turning into a roadway. It doesn't happen for you and me because we are locals and know what is what. It's not lack of attention but simply not being able to make a correct visual assessment because of the lack of light
Since this has happen many times it's about time to stop criticizing the drivers and take measures to make clear what is a road and what it isn't. This particular spot, as someone mentioned, is already confusing in daylight because of its particular characteristics. At night, it's downright dangerous.

I'm glad the driver was able to get out before the train struck. Others have not been so fortunate.


3 people like this
Posted by Tim
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Feb 13, 2018 at 10:03 am

Didn’t Menlo Park have a train vs car a few days back too? What happen to the guard that is there 24-7?


18 people like this
Posted by TorreyaMan
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 13, 2018 at 10:18 am

TorreyaMan is a registered user.

My GPS navigation can be very specific, such as "use the left of the two right hand lanes to exit". Why cannot the GPS systems be programed to add something like "caution, do not turn onto adjacent railroad tracks"?


4 people like this
Posted by me too
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Feb 13, 2018 at 10:24 am

@james: having a sensor to detect cars would mean being in the 21st century. Public transportation in this area is still stuck in the 1900.

I had a scary moment myself at the crossing in Redwood City, when the bar hit the front of my car because the driver behind me would not back up for some reason. I learned to always stop before the tracks and never to go across unless there's plenty of space to go all the way through.


9 people like this
Posted by martin
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 13, 2018 at 10:40 am

It's sad that Palo Alto insists on their "trench or nothing" stance towards grade separating Caltrain. Hopefully the city council will come to their senses to realize that there's no magic pool of money for a tunnell and actually work on grade separations.

I've ridden Caltrain for over 10 years and anytime Palo Alto and grade separation comes up, it's this dead-end talk of tunnels and trenches that will never happen. One thing that will happen is that cars will keep getting hit and people will keep dying. In the meantime, San Bruno got its grade separation, Hillsdale is working on it and there's even talk of Mountain View moving forward.


23 people like this
Posted by some sarcasm
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 13, 2018 at 10:50 am

@ RRdanger

There is nowhere in this world where it is safe to stop on railroad tracks. It doesn't matter what city you come from, what country you come from, what language you speak, what signs there are, it's universal - you don't stop on railroad tracks.

In fact, outside of Palo Alto, mankind has managed for two centuries with hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of crossings that have no signage at all. It's a problem of attitude.


4 people like this
Posted by Resident of SPA
a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Feb 13, 2018 at 11:02 am

The tracks at Meadown now have nice red reflectors where the the crossing ends and the tracks start, so you at least see there is an edge to the roadway. Why are these not at Charleston? If you are experimenting, then it looks like you've proved the Charleston crossing needs at least similar treatment, after this crash.


15 people like this
Posted by ReallyLiveHere
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Feb 13, 2018 at 11:11 am

ReallyLiveHere is a registered user.

The thing that's missing is that the GPS software says "turn right" instead of "cross tracks, then turn right". This means that people aren't primed to look for the tracks. In the dark, they mess up, and turn at the first place it looks like they could turn...onto the tracks.

I don't recall this kind of turn-onto-tracks being nearly as common before everybody started using GPS to get around, but it has become a national phenomenon since then. You can find dozens of news reports about this kind of crash from all over the country here:

Web Link

Fixing it most cheaply done by convincing Google and others to change the voice prompt when making a turn onto a road which runs parallel to railroad tracks.

Anybody reading this who works at Google, Apple, or other mapping providers should file an internal ticket to fix this.


5 people like this
Posted by chris
a resident of University South
on Feb 13, 2018 at 11:14 am

Put a trench with the associated funding on the ballot this year. You will find out once and for all whether Palo Altans are willing to pay for it. When you find out they aren't, go full speed ahead with the plan used in nearby cities of slighly raising the tracks and putting the roads underneath.

In this era of trillion dollar deficits, Palo Altans are in serious denial if they think the Feds will pay for this folly. It's time for Palo Altans to put on their big boy pants and "man" up.


6 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 13, 2018 at 11:34 am

So in this story it is the navigation systems fault for this error vs the driver? That defies logic up to a point. Except I live on a cul-de-sac that has a sign posted on the street and yet people turn in to get out of the traffic and zoom madly into the street and then have to turn around and zoom out - and they are ticked off because they originally got stuck in traffic on Louis due to WAZE(?). These people look angry as they go through this experience.
As to the accident you cannot drive on Alma without trains passing you by. Is this a foreign person who does not understand standard American driving guidelines?


29 people like this
Posted by DT North
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 13, 2018 at 11:37 am

As a few but not most noticed: This person actually drove down the tracks. They didn't just stop on them (as I do incidentally see quite often) It seems to me if you are unfamiliar with the area you pay MORE attention not less. There is a lot going on there that should signal you're at a rail road crossing and don't turn onto and try to drive on tracks. Like those big red and white bars. They're a universal sign that there is a track there. As someone else pointed out there are thousands of crossings with no signals where people don't die. People here don't pay attention, walking, biking or driving. We used to actually walk down the tracks home from school when I was a kid. Like it was a gymnastics beam. It was a very active track and low and behold we never came close to being hit. We paid attention to our surroundings. An interesting concept around here. I crossed town down Waverley the other night and no less than 3 cyclists ran the stop signs. No light, dark clothes, right in front of me and one had no helmet. I had no stop sign yet if I'd not been alert and had hit them would've been the evil 2 ton car driver, not the lame unthinking cyclist on trial on this forum. These are often near Churchill so I'm guessing HS students. I normally have a kid or two in my car when I see these things and I always make sure to point them and and remind them: Be vigilant, your life is in your own hands.


5 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 13, 2018 at 11:39 am

As to tunnels under the street if you drive up to San Mateo county on El Camino you can see that tunnels have been built under the tracks at the main streets that lead to the freeway - San Bruno, Belmont. etc. I remember when one of the tunnels was being built and they did a very good job and very quick. It has a limitation on what kind of trucks can go under but that limitation already exists. I watch this process and it is very doable.


2 people like this
Posted by Aninymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 13, 2018 at 11:59 am

Defies logic that a driver would do this. Must be awfully occupied with Wazw, no excuse.
Why wasn’t description of vehicle given (like in Menlo Oark crash where a valuable historic car was totalled)?


3 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 13, 2018 at 12:00 pm

Recent 2-minute segment on kron-tv: Web Link
Video of drivers being cited by police in Burlingame rail-crossing crackdown.


2 people like this
Posted by Roland
a resident of another community
on Feb 13, 2018 at 12:07 pm

I showed this video to the Caltrain Board right after a young mother was killed in Menlo Park: Web Link.
The cost is approximately $2M/crossing, so the entire Peninsula could be protected for half the cost of a single grade separation project.


3 people like this
Posted by AResident
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 13, 2018 at 12:28 pm

The problem with this crossing is that the sidewalks are made out of asphalt, making it look like a road instead of a crosswalk. They need to put in concrete sidewalks and have signs.

See for yourself, it was an easy mistake to make.

Web Link


1 person likes this
Posted by MoreEnforcementNeeded
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 13, 2018 at 12:34 pm

Shortly after the incident with the car on the tracks last night, there was another rollover accident on Middlefield at University, where the speed limit is 25mph on both streets. Web Link We need more traffic enforcement.


12 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 13, 2018 at 12:35 pm

This was not a case of someone in a hurry or someone getting stopped on the tracks. This was a deliberate turn onto the tracks by someone unfamiliar with the crossing in the dark. Whether he was using GPS or a list of written instructions, turn right can be ambiguous if you are not aware there is a train track in the vicinity.

In many European crossings the double gates swing open and put a barrier to prevent anyone accidentally driving onto the tracks. A barrier that swings to prevent cars entering the track will be much more obvious than all the signs in the world.


7 people like this
Posted by John
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Feb 13, 2018 at 12:41 pm

Great that there were no injuries. Perhaps the car should be saved and mounted at the train crossing as art and a reminder to not stop on the tracks.. hmmmm?


9 people like this
Posted by ndn
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 13, 2018 at 1:09 pm

Some of you seemingly cannot grasp the concept of inertia eg: "drove down the tracks". Some of you have difficulty with the concept of cognitive mistake as if the driver had on purpose driven in the wrong direction. Some of you have a wee bit of a problem with wanted to not understand why and how people make such mistakes. Some of you have difficulty in putting yourself in the shoes (or car) unfamiliar with the territory.... Those are by and large the people who upon some event first look for culprits (does that not confer a feeling of superiority ?) not how and why. Some of you are seemingly not human and therefore never make such mistakes.....EVER!. Ah, the quest to be perfect...ALWAYS!

Ah, honni soi qui mal y pense!

Finally there is at least one of you (resident) who dog whistles "Is this a foreign person who does not understand standard American driving guidelines?" I can assure you that California's driving laws have not had universal acceptance even in the US ! (ever driven in Boston?)

As for me I never ever leave my donkey on the rail tracks, never wave to trains with my sombrero, and never not bow to a Californian resident! Is that ok with you?



4 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 13, 2018 at 1:25 pm

NDN - I live in the vicinity of a large organization that has many foreign visitors - some of which park on my street. And they are not from sombrero land. They came across the ocean and then flew over the US to get here. And the places they came from do not have a lot of cars - or trains - or if they do then most do not individually own them. Many of the people that come here come from very deficient places that do not afford individuals the amenities we have here. However - from wherever people come most do understand train tracks. That intersection is very clear with fences and signals so hard to miss the standard RR equipment. You appear single focused on your own agenda. Your response is smug.


5 people like this
Posted by JLN
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Feb 13, 2018 at 1:59 pm

JLN is a registered user.

For every collision between a train and a car on the tracks, there must be several times the number of instances where a car was stopped on the tracks immediately behind another one just across the tracks. Just ask the security guards, who do their best to warn the drivers of these cars when they seem them stranding the tracks.

Before entering the crossing area, we all need to get in the habit of always ensuring there is at least AN EXTRA CAR SPACE between our car and the one in front of us, just in case the latter suddenly stops.


Like this comment
Posted by JLN
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Feb 13, 2018 at 2:00 pm

JLN is a registered user.

For every collision between a train and a car on the tracks, there must be several times the number of instances where a car was stopped on the tracks immediately behind another one just across the tracks. Just ask the security guards, who do their best to warn the drivers of these cars when they seem them stranding the tracks.

Before entering the crossing area, we all need to get in the habit of always ensuring there is at least AN EXTRA CAR SPACE between our car and the one in front of us, just in case the latter suddenly stops.


8 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 13, 2018 at 2:22 pm

One word: Gates.

Gates across the tracks down when gates across the road up. Gates across the road down when gates across the tracks up.

Problem solved.


7 people like this
Posted by Pat Markevirch
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 13, 2018 at 2:51 pm

A simple solution would be to install cameras at those intersections. Put up signs saying that you will get a ticket if you stop on the tracks. Maybe a financial incentive will help people pay attention.


35 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 13, 2018 at 4:35 pm

I've lived in Palo Alto for 40 years. The train has been running for much longer than that, of course. In my 40 years, I do not recall Caltrain ever hitting a car until about 10 years ago. Now, this is happening more and more often; up to several times a year (many, but all in Palo Alto).

Question 1: is it just a coincidence that the IPhone started becoming popular about 10 years ago?

Question 2: when these collisions first started happening (10 years ago), several people proposed moving the traffic lights on Meadow and Charleston to the other side of the train tracks to make it even more clear that people should not try to cross the tracks when there was nowhere to go on the other side. There was even an article in this newspaper where Palo Alto traffic engineers said that plan was feasible and inexpensive. Why was nothing done then? Is anything planned now?


2 people like this
Posted by Deborah
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Feb 14, 2018 at 12:01 am

Those audio driving directions programs sure are handy, until they give you the wrong or confusing directions. I know many people, people who would formerly get lost all the time, rely on them exclusively.

I've been negotiating those crossing for forty-five years and know that like the back of my hand. It's almost inconceivable to me that someone could turn on to the tracks. But if it is dark and they are unfamiliar with the area and trying to follow possibly hard to understand directions, I can see it happening. I know that I have twice, narrowly missed turning on to light rail tracks in downtown San Jose, both at night.

I agree with @Martin and @DTNorth. There are fixes. Time to write the council!


4 people like this
Posted by Crossing trap
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 14, 2018 at 12:20 am

Was there 5 minutes after the accident happened. Seeing those police flashes, it's scarry to think there might be another life lost.

When this type of incidence happened so often, there has to be a design fault: the crossing should be all clear when a train is approaching. Instead, the current light is just 1 Car past the tract, setting up a trap for any less attentive driver who follows the first car stopping at the light. What good is letting 1 Car park at that Light?

There are a couple solutions:
1. Move back the lights( on the perpendicular direction of the tracts)

2. Better integration of the caltrain system and the crossing light signals

3. Like some post suggested, there are dropped down blocking device elsewhere ( in Europe and Asia) which is more efficient to keep the crossing clear.

4. Why did the watcher not give signal to the train operator? It's not their duty I guess.
China has recently installed 2 million public camera which reduce its police response time greatly(for crimes). Camera surveilance will be so useful here too.

Really hope caltrain and the city put in more thoughts on human life and human errors to redesign these crossing traps.


2 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 14, 2018 at 12:29 pm

Although the cause of this particular accident was probably of the cell phone directions app type ("Turn Right!!! Driver turns right onto track instead of Alma astreet just beyond), the other type discussed, caused when a car pulls up and stops on the track, just behind a car stopped at Alma, is all too common.

Just this morning, I saw a car do it. Ended up right on top of both tracks when the car in front stopped at the red light. (Were they not expecting that?) Luckily, the car was able to move before the next train came along.


Like this comment
Posted by Jack Wilson
a resident of Portola Valley
on Feb 14, 2018 at 3:37 pm

Ok lets come up with a better Idea? This is not working.


Like this comment
Posted by Mr. Efficient
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 15, 2018 at 11:14 pm

Wouldn't it be more effective to simply separate the auto traffic from the train tracks than to utilize radar and all these other harebrained schemes?

"Gates across the tracks down when gates across the road up."

Oh sure, it's easy to stop a multi-ton train within a distance of 50 feet or so, never mind that the train has the right-of-way.


4 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 15, 2018 at 11:51 pm

Gates across the track are supposed to keep the cars from turning onto the rails,
which is a problem that should not be occurring.


4 people like this
Posted by ReallyLiveHere
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Feb 16, 2018 at 9:10 am

ReallyLiveHere is a registered user.

FWIW, I passed on the issue with how the voice prompts interact with darkness and an unfamiliar situation to the Google Maps team. They're at least aware of the issue now, and might actually make a change in how that particular navigation software provides voice prompts in this situation. Of course, in typical big-company form, us outsiders have absolutely no visibility into what they're going to do.

Anybody reading this who either works at a firm which produces such software (Apple, DeLorme, etc) or who knows somebody who does, please get tickets filed.


Thinking about whether it's worth our while to bring this up with the NHTSA -- their data collection system doesn't look like it is collecting the right information to spot this problem. I'm kind of dubious that this administration would actually take action as well.


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

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