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Caltrain hits empty car near Churchill Avenue

Original post made on Nov 15, 2019

A southbound Caltrain struck a car on the tracks near Churchill Avenue in Palo Alto this evening, the agency said on Twitter. Commuters were advised to expect delays due to the incident.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Friday, November 15, 2019, 6:25 PM

Comments (34)

3 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 15, 2019 at 6:27 pm

Again!!!!!!!!!


27 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 15, 2019 at 6:36 pm

We've been living in Palo Alto for 40 years. For the first 30 of those years, train vs car collisions happened once every 5 years at most. Over the last several years, this happens almost every month. What is going on people? Have drivers gotten that much more stupid? Or does the invention of the iphone have something to do with it?


10 people like this
Posted by john
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 15, 2019 at 10:07 pm

Over the past 8 years, as resident says, there has indeed been an increase in people driving onto the tracks. Without fail the reason has always been something like, "GPS say turn left!!!" or right....


17 people like this
Posted by resident 3
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 15, 2019 at 11:17 pm

I found it a design fault in the intersections to allow cars go onto tracks to wait for a traffic light. Intersections should be absolutely clear when a train is approaching but currently it allows cars to get onto the middle intersection to wait for traffic light. In each perpendicular direction(to the track), traffic lights should be in front of the closest rail not after the furthest rail. No right turn on redlight should be allowed. Approaching train should override traffic lights.


7 people like this
Posted by stopwatch
a resident of Ventura
on Nov 16, 2019 at 5:36 am

Do we only hear about actual collisions? All the cars I've seen simply stuck on tracks never made the news. Thursday evening a week ago (Nov 7th) one was winched off the track 30 feet south of the Meadow crossing. A northbound Caltrain (#197 I think) waited patiently for the tow truck driver to finish. Nothing in the PAPD log, nothing on Caltrain Twitter. I saw a similar circumstance in the wee hours at Churchill awhile back. No harm, no foul. Maybe the crossing surveillance cameras are smart enough now to detect such occurrences and alert nearby trains in time to avert calamity. Sure, nothing will stop a 70 mph train in 30 seconds, but a minute or two warning should go a long way.


17 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 16, 2019 at 7:34 am

They need to move the lights to BEFORE the tracks not AFTER the tracks. So they need to install an extra set of lights BEFORE the tracks for the lane on Churchill heading towards Alma.

Which ever idiot that designed the lights were too stupid to figure that out and no one has rectified the problem since.

Now the city has a bunch of idiots doing bizarre designs using a company that is inexperienced and wasting tons of tax payers money.

Just ask the various school parents whose kids attend the schools near the roads that the city has altered. The curbs are not wide enough leading out of the school, even though they suddenly put an island in front of the exit so fire trucks and buses can’t exit out. They narrow the road so bikers are forced to bike in front of cars.

Who is in charge of all the expensive and idiotic changes of Palo Alto city streets? They are hell bent to waste tax payers’ monies and wreak havoc and chaos and endanger us


9 people like this
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 16, 2019 at 8:41 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

I think we have more people driving now that are from other countries/locations with different rules. They may be new drivers who get confused. Going back and forth to the city I see UBER drivers who are trying to meet a schedule doing very stupid and illegal movements on the road. People on the freeway are busy maneuvering around in a risky manner. As to people sitting on the tracks I have not seen that - most people are at the lines of demarcation on either side of the tracks. It is clearly laid out where you stop. It is clear that you do not stop on the tracks to wait for the signal to change. And if someone is doing that then they are a foreign driver who does not understand the lines on the street - does not apply to them?


Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 16, 2019 at 10:05 am

Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, a resident of Adobe-Meadow

>> They may be new drivers who get confused. Going back and forth to the city I see UBER drivers who are trying to meet a schedule doing very stupid and illegal movements on the road.

I think many of these drivers, including, and even especially, Über, are following their smartphone directions so reactively that they turn before thinking. Smartphones have dumb consequences.

>> As to people sitting on the tracks I have not seen that - most people are at the lines of demarcation on either side of the tracks. It is clearly laid out where you stop. It is clear that you do not stop on the tracks to wait for the signal to change. And if someone is doing that then they are a foreign driver who does not understand the lines on the street - does not apply to them?

I've seen it many times right in front of me. What happens is this: a car turns right on red. A car moves up. The car may be trying to turn right on red, and can't, so it stops, or, the car is crossing straight ahead, but, is either too wide or too far to the right for another car to turn right on red. When this car moves up, the car behind it moves up, on the right, thinking that they will quickly turn right on red. For either reason above, the car in front doesn't move, leaving the car behind sitting on the tracks. They didn't do it on purpose, they just impatiently assumed that they would be able to turn right on red quickly. Then, the train appears.

These intersections should be fixed so that the red light stopping points are before the tracks, and, right turn on red should be prohibited. Of course, that would require a bit more time allocated for the crossing traffic, which would reduce the throughput of Alma. Oh well.


5 people like this
Posted by Try To Comprehend The Incident
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 16, 2019 at 10:13 am

Why was the car empty?

Shouldn't someone have been in it?

An abandoned car left on the RR tracks doesn't make any sense.


Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 16, 2019 at 10:23 am

Posted by Try To Comprehend The Incident, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland

>> Why was the car empty? Shouldn't someone have been in it? An abandoned car left on the RR tracks doesn't make any sense.

Maybe it was a self-driving car? Well, actually, we can deduce that the driver (and possible pasenger(s) ) jumped out before being hit by the train. But, you knew that already, right?


Like this comment
Posted by Old Palo Alto
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 16, 2019 at 11:30 am

People either run the red light turning left off Alma onto Churchill or tail gate turning right onto Alma, either way getting stuck on the tracks.


2 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 16, 2019 at 11:36 am

This is a poorly written article. Hopefully more information about what happened will be posted soon.

In past incidents like this, the car was "empty" because the driver was stopped on the train tracks (usually due to incompetence) then the driver freaked out when the train approached and decided to abandon the car on the tracks rather than drive it off the tracks. Sometimes the driver had actually driven off the road and onto the tracks, then the car stalled and could not be safely started again. In recent years, this kind of thing has happened frequently at all of the train crossings in Palo Alto (as well as other train crossings along the peninsula).


2 people like this
Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Nov 16, 2019 at 2:46 pm

Reality Check is a registered user.

Due to motorists "blindly" following in-car navigation system instructions — typically after dark — to turn onto cross streets parallel and immediatley adjacent to railroad crossings (such as Alma), there is a worsening epidemic of such incidents up and down the Caltrain line.

Once driven off the crossing and onto the right of way, many vehicles often are unable to maneuver off rails which are about 9 inches tall. There was an incident in San Bruno not long ago where the car was driven nearly to the elevated San Bruno station, making tow truck access and therefore removal difficult. A couple years ago there were two such incidents within months of each other where the struck vehicles caught fire. Many more incidents are not reported because the car gets clear or trains are stopped before a collision occurs. While most motorists have the good sense to evacuate their stuck vehicles to avoid injury or death ... there have been incidents where bystanders pulled confused drivers from their vehicles (not long ago at the Sunnyvale Ave. crossing).

Apart from calling 911, there should be a sign posted near every crossing with a special phone number and unique crossing id number to quickly alert train dispatchers to any such problem.

Caltrain staff is well aware of this problem and has been working through regulatory bureaucracy to make crossing modifications to help reduce them (bollards, low curbs, reflectors, paint, signage, etc.).


16 people like this
Posted by Churchill
a resident of Southgate
on Nov 16, 2019 at 3:58 pm

Having spent 2 1/2 hours last night with the woman whose car was struck, I have some familiarity with what happened. she is new to this route. She was heading east on Churchill and mistakenly turned right onto the tracks instead of turning right onto alma. If you turn onto the tracks you dip down off the pavement onto the Rocky area. And the car straddles the tracks with its wheels. She had gotten into that position at least 5 minutes before the train came, but she could not back up onto the pavement. The car was stuck. Then the train was coming so she got out, luckily, and watched her car get smashed. The police said this is very common - I thought most of the cars that get struck are perpendicular on the tracks, but in fact the police said that most of the people who get struck turned onto the tracks like this person did. I am not sure why the cameras at Churchill didn’t detect her presence on the track soon enough to tell the train. This intersection is so unsafe - especially in twilight when it is hard to see any road markers. To top it off after her car was destroyed, Caltrain police gave her a ticket. Trains and cars and bikes can’t be separated soon enough.


Like this comment
Posted by Marvin
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 16, 2019 at 4:26 pm

"If you turn onto the tracks you dip down off the pavement onto the rocky area. And the car straddles the tracks with its wheels. She had gotten into that position at least 5 minutes before the train came, but she could not back up onto the pavement."

This very thing happened in Oxnard but the vehicle was a pickup truck. A number of passengers were injured and the train engineer tragically perished from injuries sustained in the accident.

There have got to be FRA rules governing the placement of crossing gates relative to the tracks at a grade crossing.

Web Link


2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 16, 2019 at 4:43 pm

Gates that swing around blocking the tracks rather than lift high would prevent people accidentally turning onto the tracks.

Pretty obvious, really.


4 people like this
Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Nov 16, 2019 at 8:42 pm

Reality Check is a registered user.

@Resident: yes, you're on the right (ahem) track ... similar to the best solution I've been able to think of!

Install a new set of crossing gates across the tracks (instead of across the road). These would normally stay lowered, blocking motorists from mistakenly driving onto the tracks. When approaching trains trigger the road crossing gates to lower and block cars from entering the crosssing, these new track crossing gates would do the exact opposite and raise up and out of the way to allow trains to pass.

(Wonky stuff: road crossing gates typically have battery-backup so they work during power outages ... but if they don't, or if the batteries go dead, the gates "failsafe" into the down position. So these new track crossing gates should failsafe into the up position, so that trains can pass without smashing the gates during complete power failures.)

Another cheaper passive solution is to basically build the automotive equivalent of a cattle guard (extremely bumpy uneven surface) across both outside edges of the crossing ... think of sharply angled ridges about the half the diameter of a car tire.

Easy peasy ... problem solved!


12 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 16, 2019 at 8:55 pm

Why, why, why don't we adopt the obvious solutions?

1. Install auxiliary traffic lights WEST of the tracks at Churchill, Meadow, and Charleston

2. Paint reflective red-white warning stripes on the flanking pavement where it crosses the tracks, plus install vertical red-white warning strips on posts between the tracks

We don't need a truckload of feasibility studies and endless process. We need simple obvious effective actions


4 people like this
Posted by Hmmmmm
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 16, 2019 at 10:41 pm

As someone said, the previous several decades this wasn't a problem so focus on what's
changed for a solution I'm thinking....


Like this comment
Posted by Hmmmmm
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 16, 2019 at 10:42 pm

As someone said, the previous several decades this wasn't a problem so focus on what's
changed for a solution I'm thinking....


11 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 17, 2019 at 1:12 am

One of the most fundamental rules of the road is you should only operate a vehicle at speeds that are safe for the conditions. If the speed limit is 50mph, but the road is slippery, you should slow down.

Why are trains allowed to operate at speeds that are not safe for the conditions? If it takes you more than a MILE to stop, you are going too fast!

If you were operating a car, bus, or truck and you slammed into a stopped vehicle from a mile away, it would be your fault. End of story.

Seriously, why is this one industry allowed to operate vehicles at high speeds, in proximity to other vehicles, with braking capability unchanged from the 1800s?


8 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 17, 2019 at 7:12 am

Posted by Ahem

>> One of the most fundamental rules of the road is you should only operate a vehicle at speeds that are safe for the conditions. If the speed limit is 50mph, but the road is slippery, you should slow down.

Strangely, we allow people to operate their own vehicles, knowing that they follow too closely and rear-end each other all the time. And when they do, it can result in an accident which causes hundreds of thousands of lost hours for other people sitting in traffic. Why do we allow that to continue?

>> Why are trains allowed to operate at speeds that are not safe for the conditions? If it takes you more than a MILE to stop, you are going too fast!

Why are cars allowed to operate at speeds which result in 30,000+ fatalities in the US every year?

>> Seriously, why is this one industry allowed to operate vehicles at high speeds, in proximity to other vehicles, with braking capability unchanged from the 1800s?

Airplanes operate at 500+ mph constantly, carrying hundreds of millions of passengers, with one year on record, 2017, with ZERO fatalities. It takes a long time to slow a plane down and get it safely on the ground. Why do we allow that? Shinkansen in Japan and TGV in France when running on their own dedicated tracks have almost perfect safety records. Are you sure high speeds are the problem here? Or, is it allowing average motorists to cross the tracks on their own terms under their own control?


5 people like this
Posted by Miriam Palm
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 17, 2019 at 8:54 am

Miriam Palm is a registered user.

What some of you are suggesting will mean "no right turn on red" - fine with me. I have been honked at from behind when I am in the one clear space to turn right from Churchill to Alma, waiting for southbound traffic to clear. Let's move those traffic lights back to the "west" side of the tracks.

When I was turning left from Alma onto Churchill on Friday, a car waiting to turn right onto Churchill pulled in front of me, although I had the right of way = green arrow. Oy!


7 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 17, 2019 at 4:37 pm

@Anon,

The difference between the Shinkansen and Caltrain is the Shinkansen has a near perfect safety record, Caltrain does not. If Caltrain is slamming into stopped vehicles from a MILE away, they are not traveling at speeds that are safe for the conditions or there is something deficient about their equipment or infrastructure.

We need updated rail regulations that require Caltrain to operate at speeds that are safe for the conditions. Current rail regulations date aback to the early 1900s and no longer provide for safe operations of trains in close proximity to people and other ground based vehicle.

We are not living in the 1800s anymore. Operating a vehicle with a 50-0mph braking distance of over a MILE, in close proximity to people and other vehicles, is just plain negligent.


Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 17, 2019 at 8:53 pm

Posted by Ahem, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood

>> The difference between the Shinkansen and Caltrain is the Shinkansen has a near perfect safety record, Caltrain does not.

In case it wasn't clear from my previous post, a key difference between Caltrain and Shinkansen, or TGV (on TGV tracks-- sometimes TGV trains run on "classic" tracks), is that Shinkansen and TGV tracks have no grade crossings. No crossings, as in -none-. Caltrain obviously has plenty-- that is what we are talking about.

>> If Caltrain is slamming into stopped vehicles from a MILE away, they are not traveling at speeds that are safe for the conditions or there is something deficient about their equipment or infrastructure.

According to this article, Web Link), the braking distance for Caltrain, or, any commuter passenger train, should not have been a MILE.

"Emergency-braking a train (without track brakes) will give about 1.5 m/s2 (0.15 g) deceleration. The braking distance will be approximately 250 m (820 ft) at 100 km/h (62 mph) and 600 m (2,000 ft) at 160 km/h (99 mph). High-speed trains are usually equipped with a magnetic track brake, which can give about 0.3 m/s2 extra, and give braking distances like 850 m (2,790 ft) at 200 km/h (120 mph) and 1,900 m (6,200 ft) at 300 km/h (190 mph)."

I don't have any information on when the obstruction was observed or signaled to the driver, or, how fast it was going. It should have been stopped at the Palo Alto station, and, since Churchill is less than a mile downstream, I would assume the train was still accelerating when it got the stop signal. I'm not sure where the MILE distance came into the discussion of the accident. Was there an estimate of the speed of the train at the time of the collision? It isn't clear why the train didn't get the info to stop sooner than it did. I wonder what the actual stopping distance was, from whatever speed the train was going.

Freight trains typically take much longer, and, as was also discussed, freight trains do operate on the same tracks. Another reason to eliminate the grade crossings.

>> We need updated rail regulations that require Caltrain to operate at speeds that are safe for the conditions.

Yes, let's remove all the grade crossings.


4 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 17, 2019 at 9:39 pm

If the problem is poor visibility at these crossings, how just adding more or brighter street lights? I am fine with banning right-turn-on red in all directions as well, since that just seems to confuse many drivers into dangerous maneuvers.


8 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 17, 2019 at 10:55 pm

@Anon,

Caltrain has had decade to improve their crossing controls but has done nothing. Every year Caltrain increases the speed of their trains but does nothing to improve the crossings or the braking capability of their vehicles. Caltrain's crossing controls look like something from the 1920s.

A 62-0mph braking distance of 820 feet is completely useless for anything other than normal braking at a station. 62-0mph in 820 feet is certainly NOT "emergency" braking in anything other than name.

Until we modernize the 100 year old regulations governing Caltrain's responsibilities, Caltrain is just going to keep putting profits ahead of safety.


4 people like this
Posted by stopwatch
a resident of Ventura
on Nov 17, 2019 at 11:35 pm

What? Caltrain has profits?


Like this comment
Posted by Morris
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 18, 2019 at 12:07 am

"Until we modernize the 100 year old regulations governing Caltrain's responsibilities"

Send a letter to the FRA. I'm sure they'd love to hear your pearls of wisdom on the topic of railroad engineering.

"Every year Caltrain increases the speed of their trains but does nothing to improve the crossings or the braking capability of their vehicles."

But they are compliant with the law, so ... ?


9 people like this
Posted by Old Joe
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 18, 2019 at 5:52 am

We need form a committee in Palo Alto immediately to study the crossings and look for solutions. Then spend close to a billion dollars trying to implement fixes that we can’t afford and no one can agree on. Meanwhile we should debate who is dumber on PAOL and wether it is the drivers fault, or the (Ahem) technology.

..... or just close the crossings and be done with it.

Close the crossings. Car drivers cannot be trusted to operate their cars safely in this town.


2 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 18, 2019 at 9:48 am

Posted by Ahem, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood

>> A 62-0mph braking distance of 820 feet is completely useless for anything other than normal braking at a station. 62-0mph in 820 feet is certainly NOT "emergency" braking in anything other than name.

Although your Porsche can probably brake 0-60 in less than 130 feet, most cars are considerably longer, especially older cars, with aged tires, on wet roads, after the first rain of the season. But, if you are really worried about it, consider large tractor-trailer trucks. Here are a couple of the the websites that I looked at. The general rule of thumb is that braking on wet roads is 2X dry roads in idea conditions. The two sites have different numbers; one has a table. Stopping distance goes up roughly as the square of speed.

Site 1, at -55- mph: Web Link

-braking distance: The distance it takes to stop once the brakes are put on. At 55 MPH on dry pavement with good brakes, it can take a heavy vehicle about 390 feet to stop. It takes about 4 seconds.
-total stopping distance: At 55 MPH it will take about 6 seconds to stop a truck and the truck will have traveled about 512 feet.

Site 2, at -55- mph: Web Link

Braking distance: The distance your vehicle will travel, in ideal conditions; while you are braking. At 55 mph on dry pavement with good brakes, it can take about 216 feet.
Total stopping distance: The total minimum distance your vehicle has traveled, in ideal conditions; with everything considered, including perception distance, reaction distance and braking distance, until you can bring your vehicle to a complete stop. At 55 mph, your vehicle will travel a minimum of 419 feet.

So, under not-ideal wet conditions, site 1 says total distance 900 feet, 780 of it braking. Site 2 says 635, 432 of it braking.

And, stay off the road if it is snowy.

By Site 1's estimates, the braking distance of a truck on a wet road is similar to a train. There are 2200-4200 truck-related fatalities per year. Web Link . (Around 2800 in the year 2017.)



3 people like this
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 18, 2019 at 10:02 am

Nayeli is a registered user.

If this is a GPS issue, I wonder if there is anything that various GPS companies can do to minimize the risk at these problematic crossings? Of course, I don't think that the problem is people "turning onto" the tracks by GPS suggestion (as some people have suggested in the past).

According to one Caltrain conductor that my husband spoke with, this tends to be an issue in which people stop on the tracks because they assume that the traffic light will turn green OR the car turning right will go. When the train crossing lights come on, they panic and simply jump out of the car.

Perhaps an electric sign with an arrow that says "STOP HERE" and "NO TURN ON RED" would be more effective than anything else at these types of crossings.


7 people like this
Posted by Common sense
a resident of Mountain View
on Nov 18, 2019 at 10:19 am

Maybe we need more stringent requirements for getting a drivers license? Honestly, who in their right mind stops on a train track? Or turns from a street on to gravelly tracks? I get that people make mistakes but anyone who makes these kinds of mistakes shouldn’t be driving period, their licenses should be revoked, they are a danger to others.


1 person likes this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 18, 2019 at 10:30 am

Posted by Nayeli, a resident of Midtown

>> If this is a GPS issue, I wonder if there is anything that various GPS companies can do to minimize the risk at these problematic crossings? Of course, I don't think that the problem is people "turning onto" the tracks by GPS suggestion (as some people have suggested in the past).

According to Churchill above:

>> she is new to this route. She was heading east on Churchill and mistakenly turned right onto the tracks instead of turning right onto alma. If you turn onto the tracks you dip down off the pavement onto the Rocky area.

It doesn't say she was using her phone navigation, but, she was "new to the route", so, likely. I think this is one type of incident. The other type is the driver who just can't force themselves to leave 20 feet between themselves and the car in front. Very often, the driver wants to turn right.

Not all incidents are the same. A second red light in front of the crossing would help the second type, but, not for the first type. The long-term solution is to follow the Shinkansen/TGV precedent: no grade crossings.


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