To the Community We Serve

By Mark Simon, @MarkSimon24

It hurts us all.

In a place that prides itself on responding to problems positively, creatively and effectively, the deaths by suicide on the Caltrain right of way and in the larger community are deeply troubling and acutely frustrating.

These deaths go through our organization like a continuing ripple of pain. It’s an issue faced by railroads across the country and around the world.  We have been dealing with these tragedies since assuming operation of Caltrain in 1992 and, each death seems to cut even deeper. I am reminded of the line from poet John Donne’s most famous essay: “Every man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.”

We also share the dismay and exasperation of our customers and the far-reaching consequences of these events.   Passengers sit idle on trains, late for important appointments, missing out on family events and social engagements, running late for flights and transit connections.  We serve the whole community and it is an additional level of pain when a tragic turn of events also prevents us from meeting our obligations to the many individuals who rely on our service.

That is why for nearly a decade, Caltrain has been involved in a wide range of efforts to address safety on the right of way and the larger issue of the well-being and mental health of our community.

This message is intended, among other things, to update you on those latest efforts, but before I get to that, I must sound a cautionary note: There are only five things, in our experience, that can truly impact these tragic events, and none of them is a quick way to make this problem better:

  1. Stop running trains. While this doesn’t solve our community’s troubling suicide rate, it would certainly stop deaths on the railroad. This might be a solution to deaths on the tracks, but it is untenable, considering the place Caltrain has in serving our community and its impact on the lives we try to lead.
  2. Fence off the major road/rail crossings.  Our data shows the vast majority of suicides on the Caltrain tracks occur at or near the grade crossings. We often are asked to put up more fencing along the tracks (more on that further down), but this data suggests that the grade crossings are the main point of access. Many of these roads are the principal east-west thoroughfares on the Peninsula and blocking them off entirely is as untenable as ceasing train service.
  3. Grade separate the crossings. In those Peninsula cities where grade separations have been constructed, incidents – accidents and suicides – have been reduced dramatically. Building grade separations is complicated politically, as evidenced by the continuing and passionate debate over elevated vs. underground structures. They also are expensive and take a long time to build – a grade separation project in San Bruno cost more than $150 million and took five years. Unlike the first two options, this is something we can do, although the debate over what kind – elevated or underground – is far from resolved and likely will add months, perhaps years, to this effort. And it may not have the effect we would wish in that it doesn’t eliminate access to the tracks. Tuesday’s tragic death occurred at a train station, where it is nearly impossible to eliminate pedestrian access to the tracks.
  4. Engage in a community-wide effort to address underlying mental health issues, suicide prevention and lifting the stigma of seeking help. This is the long solution – it can take decades to change community attitudes about mental health to the point where a troubled individual can openly admit that he or she needs help. And even if, together, we did everything we could and transformed our community, there is no guarantee it will work. Some of the recent cases have involved people who had sought help and had been identified as struggling with mental health issues. To the credit of our community, this mental health/suicide prevention effort is underway and has been for years. There are a number of government-, community-, and school-based organizations throughout San Mateo and Santa Clara counties that are working hard to improve the availability of services and to help guide all of us on how we can work together to reduce the risk and to reach out to one another. That is commendable and we need to consider how we can redouble our efforts, together.
  5. Reduce the harmful news media attention to these deaths. There is ample science to establish that giving high profile coverage to these incidents makes the problem worse. There are many professional journalism organizations that actively assert coverage of suicides should be minimal and non-sensational. Every leading suicide-prevention organization issues media guidelines that beg news organizations not to describe the means of the suicides in detail. And yet, as recently as Tuesday’s tragedy, every news story described exactly how the death occurred. The news media has to take some responsibility for the story it is creating, not just covering. This makes some journalists angry. A recent social media assertion along these lines provoked a very angry response from one local news organization. They defend their coverage as newsworthy because of the disruption to the daily commute. Or because the deaths themselves have become newsworthy. But this is something that can be done right now and, evidence suggests, can have a positive impact.

These options aside, it is fair to ask: What is Caltrain doing?

We are considering a range of technologies that could be applied to the right of way – all of it untested and not currently in practice on any railroad in America. Nonetheless, we have a responsibility to look at everything, and we are.

We receive a wide range of suggestions – everything from slowing the train to 5 M.P.H. to installing blowers or air bags on the fronts of the trains to installing lights and cameras at the grade crossings. Many of these ideas are impractical, and we know this because we’ve looked at all of them. Nonetheless, we will continue to explore any and all ideas. And, we have to add, we are responsible for 42 grades crossings across more than 50 miles. Any idea has to be one we are prepared to implement everywhere.

We met recently with officials from the City of Palo Alto, who, it should be noted, are nearly desperate to find something that can done – anything. We’ve agreed to look at some technology they have proposed, and we’re working with them to see how we can enhance and improve the Track Watch program of guards at the crossings.

We have installed 22 miles of additional fencing on the right of way in the past several years, and we are working with the city to consider where additional fencing might have an impact, along with the removal of trees and shrubs that may provide hiding places.

The Transit Police are specially trained in how to intervene with someone who is clearly in crisis and we have close, working relationships with many local law enforcement agencies. With their help and the help of customers who are attentive and willing to get involved, we frequently receive an early warning of someone acting erratically at or near the railroad. The result has been what we call “saves” – people we take off the right of way before they can harm themselves.

With all the attention given to the deaths on the railroad, there are many more instances where someone is saved.

For nearly a decade, we have been directly involved in special task forces and ongoing organizational efforts to address the issue of community mental health and well-being. We have tried to be a vehicle for communication about these difficult issues and a positive force for the message that there is help and there is hope. Those efforts will continue and expand – we are engaged at this moment with mental health, city and school officials on this issue.

We will work with community leaders in an effort to educate the news media on the impact of its coverage of these tragedies and to seek a more constructive approach.

In sum, we are talking to anyone and everyone about all of these – grade separations, technology, mental health, community engagement and media education. We are prepared – eager – to do anything and everything we can.

It hurts us all.

We want to help. We will be an active partner in any effort to make a difference. We are all in.

10 thoughts on “To the Community We Serve

  1. Prevention is the best solution
    What is being done to improve the situation for those trapped on the train?

    I find it unnecessarily limiting that any grade crossing solution needs to be applicable everywhere. It appears to me that each crossing is unique and deserves a chance for a unique solution.

    • It’s very difficult to control the variables that lead to passengers being trapped in various locations. Particularly for the train involved in the fatality. Unfortunately, it must come to a rest where ever it can stop most quickly. When there is no station nearby, passengers must wait on the train because we are prevented by law from allowing them to deboard directly onto the tracks. The police in conjunction with the coroner, determine when the train can be moved. For other trains, it can depend on whether we are forced to keep both tracks shut down or whether we can quickly reopen a single track.

      Each grade crossing is unique and we consider upgrades on a case-by-case basis in conjunction with the cities along our corridor. But there are political factors that make it difficult to offer technological improvements in one location while denying them in other locations. That being said, we are working on pilot projects with Palo Alto that will only affect that stretch of the corridor. If successful, it may be a model for moving forward with the roll out of new technologies.

      Jayme Ackemann
      Communications Manager

  2. The loss of life is tragic, but Caltrain simply has no plan for logistical coordination after such event for riders, relying on twitter and random posts is a joke. If this post is sincere and Caltrain is a partner, please listen and do something. Here’s what you can do:

    – Simulate a fatality at different points on the track virtually during different times of the day. Figure out what is the best course of action for individuals at each station , and what information is which statistical reason about times. Figure this out a priori.

    – Communicate with passengers on the platform at hubs. Everything this happens passengers are running around between the platforms trying to figure out which train is going where.

    – Charter bus service between the bullet Caltrain points. Increase the Caltrain fare 10% if you have to cover these stochastic expenses when fatalities occur. These delays cost passengers much, much more.

    – Have live people at each station when this happens, that are helping people to their destination.

    • Communications is the thing we can and must get better at. With ridership at an all time high, you are right, we can’t afford to continue doing business as usual and expecting to reach the ever-growing and increasingly-frustrated commuter base.

      Your suggestions are all good ones and we are working on ways to test for these scenarios now. I’m not sure that we’ll be able to pursue the charter bus service due to costs, even in an environment where we could significantly increase fares, but your point is well taken.

      Jayme Ackemann
      Communications Manager

      • It’s tough because it seems like different things happen every time. Some days, you try to keep up the schedule with long delays; other times it seems like you turn a lot of trains into locals. After all these years, many people do not seem to know how to recognize the train number on the locomotive or cab car so they are confused when a train comes in (and may board a train that doesn’t work for them).

        I know there are equipment and crew issues to manage. I also know that ridership is both directions has reached the point where combining two trains into one train run just doesn’t work – many people will be left behind at stations beyond the first one or two until some riders get out later down the run. When 371 broke down last week and they told everyone to just take 269, it was chaos. Many people were turned away at Palo Alto and Menlo Park. This was just for one train mechanical failure and not for a fatality.

    • I agree with your suggestions. If Caltrain can’t do suicide prevention, the least they can do is minimize delays and get people to their destinations. VTA and SamTrans will sometimes honor your Caltrain ticket, but those only go so far and may not get someone to their destination any faster than waiting for the trains to restart. A back-up bus/shuttle system that drops people off at bullet stops, if not all stops, or a specific bus for each bullet/limited stop is something, even if it can’t accommodate all riders. Riders would probably be less frustrated, if there were contingency plans and some efforts made beyond, “There’s been a delay due to a medical emergency, we don’t have any further information, you can connect to these bus lines instead.”

      • One problem area is between Palo Alto and Santa Clara, where VTA’s major bus routes are on El Camino, but Caltrain is not all that close to El Camino. Let’s say you live in SF and are starting in Mountain View when a major disruption occurs. First you have to walk to El Camino or take an infrequent bus. Take takes about 20 minutes (time it sometime and be sure to wait for the pedestrian lights at every block). Then you have to wait as much as 10-15 minutes for a 522 to arrive; that ride to Palo Alto is about 15 minutes. Then you need the SamTrans ECR to Millbrae BART, which takes pretty close to an hour. Finally BART into downtown SF from Millbrae is at least 30 minutes. That’s 2 hours minimum if all goes really well and easily 2 hours and a half if you have to wait 10-15 minutes here and there or one of the buses is so full you get bumped.

        Considering all that, I often find waiting it out inside an air conditioned train with a bathroom and power outlets to be a better choice, even if we sit somewhere for an hour and make additional stops before getting to SF.

  3. It would greatly help if after a fatality the trains were moving sooner. It seems like it often takes two to three hours to get moving after a death.
    For example months ago a train hit a car. Forty give minutes later there was a tweet that they had just called for a tow truck. So thousands of people sat in trains up and down the peninsula while we waited for the tow truck to show up.
    There should be a check list. When a car gets hit call for a tow truck. If the tow truck has to wait for twenty or thirty minutes pay them extra. When you have thousands of people waiting even an extra five minutes is huge.

    • It is always our goal to restore service as quickly as possible. But a death on the tracks requires a full investigation by local authorities, including the coroner before the train involved and the scene can be released. Due to staffing issues, it can take the coroner anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours to arrive on scene to begin their investigation. Following the investigation, track inspections and hazardous material clean up must be completely before service can be completely restored.

      In the vehicle fatality the tow truck call was delayed because our first priority was in trying to save the life of the victim who was trapped in her vehicle, alive but fatally injured, on the tracks. Having a tow truck on stand by for the hour it took to attempt to save her life and then to initiate the investigation following her passing, would not have materially changed the time that we were able to remove the vehicle from the tracks or restore service. In other words, it would not have reduced the amount of time passengers were delayed.

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