Caltrain to block shortcuts on tracksBy Michael Cabanatuan
Warnings, education programs and appeals to common sense have failed to stop deaths on Caltrain tracks, so rail officials are planning to spend about $9 million to keep people away from oncoming trains in San Mateo County.
The commuter rail agency plans to install new sidewalk gates that would prevent people from crossing in front of trains, as well as fences to block popular shortcuts across tracks. They plan to build street medians to keep drivers from maneuvering around crossing arms. And the agency will also install some automatic crossing gates that span the entire roadway.
"We're going to be making it harder for people to make bad choices," said Jonah Weinberg, Caltrain spokesman. "Basically, we're making the cord on the toaster too short to put it into the bathtub."
Preventing deaths along the rail line has been a constant challenge for Caltrain, which travels down the Peninsula through San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties and on to Gilroy, passing through industrial and residential areas. The railroad's deadliest year was 1995 when 20 people died on its tracks.
Thirteen people have died on the Caltrain tracks this year -- six were suicides, seven accidents. The most recent death occurred Wednesday evening at the Redwood City station.
The San Mateo County Transportation Authority is giving Caltrain $7.4 million over three years to install the pedestrian and vehicle barriers at the county's 35 crossings. Another $1.5 million will be used this year to install fencing where people tend to illegally cross the rails.
Where sidewalks cross train tracks, Caltrain plans to install railings to keep people on the sidewalk. A barrier arm would lower and block off the sidewalk when a train approaches, Weinberg said.
Still, barriers don't always work. Fredrick Opp, a 50-year-old Redwood City resident, died Wednesday after he stepped off of a northbound train, ducked under a lowered crossing arm, and was hit by a southbound express train.
"We'll never know, but the police figure he got off the train, figured the crossing arms were down because his train was in the station and walked into the path of an oncoming train," Weinberg said.
Other accidental deaths on the Caltrain tracks this year have occurred when people either failed to beat the train across the rails at a crossing or didn't see or hear an approaching train before taking a shortcut across the rails.
Like commuter railroads in other metropolitan areas, Caltrain has used a variety of strategies -- such as fences, special crossings, hefty fines and community meetings -- to deter people from taking shortcuts across, playing on or walking alongside their tracks.
Each of the deaths this year happened at a different spot. Even going back several years, it is impossible to detect a pattern of accidents or identify any particularly deadly locations, Weinberg said.
"There isn't really a way to say there's a pattern to any of this," he said. "I would say it's a combination of carelessness and recklessness."
Zoe Richmond, California coordinator for Operation Lifesaver -- a railroad industry group that works to cut deaths and injuries at train tracks -- has worked with Caltrain on education efforts. Adding new barriers is a good start, she said.
But sometimes crackdowns are also needed to deter people from crossing in front of trains or trespassing on tracks, she said.
"There are some people who are just not going to learn unless they get a big ticket," Richmond said.
Fatalities along Caltrain corridor
Locations of 2006 fatalities
Jan. 23: San Pedro Ave. - accident
Feb. 1: Brewster Ave. - accident
March 3: East Meadow Dr. - suicide
March 8: Fair Oaks Ave. overcrossing - suicide
April 6: Mountain View Station -- suicide
April 6: Whipple Ave. - accident
April 18: South of Broadway station -- accident
May 27: Paul Ave. -- suicide
June 15: 16th and Mississipi streets - suicide
July 22 : East Meadow Dr. -- suicide
Sept. 6: Chestnut St. -- suicide
Oct. 5: Rengstorff Ave. -- probable accident
Oct. 11: Redwood City station -- probable accident
Fatalities since 2000
Copyright ©2006 San Francisco Chronicle. Published 10/13/2006.