Lack of fatalities may be result of increased safety efforts

By Lisa Bishop


When it comes to putting in that extra effort for the cause of passenger safety, Chris Payne is the man.

Payne, a former train engineer and currently Caltrain's safety officer, wasn't above rolling up his sleeves and exerting some elbow grease back in January to slather down the Millbrae train station with a glaring yellow 'warning' marker. And over the yellow, Payne and his painting co-horts, Pat Boland in Caltrain's marketing dept. and Steve Hanson, Caltrain's manager of stations, have stenciled red danger signs every three feet or so.

To accommodate the county's culturally diverse population, the danger warnings use the internationally recognized warning of a circle with diagonal slash symbol to help all passengers understand the English printed message "no waiting here."

There is now so much yellow paint splashed all over the Millbrae Caltrain station that passengers can't help but be aware of the pervasive 'warning' atmosphere.

"I want our passengers and people who are thinking about getting near these trains to absolutely know that they are dangerous. We are serious about safety," said Caltrain Executive Director Mike Scanlon.

Payne noted that he took "a day off, my anniversary, actually" to pitch in with the warning paint job.

"We had contracted with a highway painter -- the guys who paint the traffic stripes -- but bad weather just kept pushing them back, causing more delays. So on Saturday, Jan. 27, the three of us came out here and got it done," said Payne.

"We all ruined our clothes," he added good-humoredly.

As the year 2001 reaches the end of its first quarter, safety measures such as the yellow warning paint, red danger signs underfoot and a flurry of police and security officer activity along the tracks have kept the rail-related death count in the county low. As of March 23, only one person had died in a Caltrain accident.

In 2000, 18 people were killed on Caltrail's right of way.

On Monday, January 29, around 5:50 p.m., Eduardo Lacsanaupa, 42, of Redwood City, was struck and killed by a Caltrain locomotive where the tracks and Redwood City's Brewster Avenue intersect. That death has been ruled an accident.

While even one death is unfortunate, this statistic is far better than last year's. By this time last year, seven people had lost their lives in Caltrain fatalities. Of those seven, six were ruled accidents by the county coroner's office.

As the number of commuter passengers on Caltrain continues to grow, more and more pedestrians are inevitably vulnerable to train accidents. And when a million-pound train hits a pedestrian, the accident will be a fatal one.

Caltrain officials report that 10.3 million people rode the trains in the year 2000, a 14.2 percent increase over 1999. But in the year 2000, more people died on the tracks than in 1999 and 1998 combined. The high death toll had many concerned about Caltrain's safety efforts.

Those concerns grew even graver when a passenger was killed at a station while standing on a center-boarding platform. The November 15 death of San Mateo County resident Chia-Chun Yao, as he stood on an area where many Caltrain passengers frequently stand, heightened interest in Caltrain's JPB (Joint Powers Board) attitude about passenger and pedestrian safety.

As early as July of 2000, San Mateo County Supervisor President Mike Nevin, who is also vice-chair of the Caltrain JPB, had been calling for more security along the tracks. Nevin began voicing his concerns to the media when 14-year-old Carlos Negrete was killed near the southern end of the Caltrain line.

As the year 2001 gets under way, security efforts along the tracks have been strongly increased, largely through the commitment of local police departments throughout the county. Those commitments have come about largely through the efforts of Caltrain's security officer, Steve Frew, who has been working to get local police depts. involved in Caltrain safety.

"Since December, I've set up contacts with police chiefs, arranging to have specific contact persons in each department," said Frew, who added he has been strongly emphasizing Caltrain's goal to keep pedestrians off the tracks.

Past fatalities have revealed that using train corridor property as a short cut or alternative to a sidewalk can be deadly. Despite the growing passenger counts, the growing number of trains on the tracks each day -- now up to 78 -- and the growing number of fatal accidents, Caltrain had done little to discourage what is legally trespassing.

That is now changing, and the lack of fatalities may be a direct result.

"San Mateo's chief, Susan Manheimer, is terrific about cooperating with our safety efforts. Having a main officer at the new Caltrain station police office, in San Mateo, David Ehrlich, well it provides a level of comfort and security you just can't buy," said Frew.

"[Ehrlich] has been working in terms of getting the San Mateo Police Dept. involved in these safety efforts."

Since the first of the year through March 14, Frew's figures show that police have had 598 "ejections" from the track property. These are situations where persons are specifically addressed by security or police personnel and escorted out of the area. To compare with previous year's ejections, in the almost-decade that Caltrain has operated the train system approximately 2,000 persons were ejected.

Additionally, 82 citations have been issued to trespassers out on the train corridor property in the first 10 weeks of the year. This number corresponds with 16 total citations over the last decade.

Last December, Scanlon acknowledged that issuing $50 tickets for trespassing on the tracks might seem a harsh way to alert people to the danger of their behavior, but ultimately he said it would be better to have "live, angry people."

One goal of the ejections and citations is a stronger presence of security officers and local police dealing with trespassers on a one-to-one basis, alerting them to the dangers of being out on the track area.

The newest member of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, Mark Church from District One, had joined with Nevin last November in calling for "whatever it takes" to prevent pedestrian fatalities on the Caltrain tracks. When informed of the degree of involvement by the county sheriff's office and local police Church was pleased.

"I am pleased and satisfied that these measures have been taken. It's certainly a step in the right direction. These results so far this year show that safety measures have been effective," Church said.

Copyright ©2001 Bay Area Independent. Published 03/21/2001.