There are at least four families in Palo Alto who will be having a less joyous Thanksgiving this year - four families touched by the tragedy of suicide. This year, four teenagers have committed suicide by walking in front of Caltrain locomotives on the at-grade section of the tracks near Gunn High School.
Now, a group of Palo Alto parents are pushing a petition to demand Caltrain slow down to a 5 mph crawl between West Meadow and Charleston Road in Palo Alto:
We ask Caltrain to implement a schedule, effective immediately, of slowing all trains from West Meadow to Charleston to a speed of 5 MPH in order to prevent further suicides on the tracks in this area.
In preparing this request our research has turned up a number of facts that support this measure.
1. They will not go elsewhere. Research has shown that individuals bent on suicide at a hot spot will not simply move further down the tracks. See links.
2. If you restrict access to the ‘means’ you will reduce the number of incidents. It has been proven that even a small impediment at a suicide hot spot reduces the number of incidents at that spot. This is why we are also watching the tracks. We believe that this vigilance, in combination with slower trains will reduce the number of incidents and perhaps stop them.
3. In the case of a suicide hot spot the threshold for the individuals who may be considering suicide is lowered. This is especially true for teens . This means the existence of the hot spot and access to it is increasing the number of incidents.
4. Although teen suicide has many possible causes and there are many preventive measures we may take as a community, slowing the trains is a short term solution.
Although a train at 5mph may be no less deadly, we believe it will be less attractive while giving us the chance to clear the tracks and giving the driver time to stop.
Currently it takes the commuter trains less than a second to clear the crossing at 60mph. At 5mph this would increase to approximately 4 seconds, a negligible delay for drivers when compared with a human life.
Slower trains will reduce the allure of this area, allow time for track watchers to clear the tracks, and give Caltrain engineers the chance to stop the train if necessary. Most importantly, slower trains now will give us time as a community to work together in launching a multi factorial effort to curb teen depression and suicide over the long term.
Caltrain takes these suicides, and any other safety hazard along the tracks, extremely seriously. And it's hard to fault parents who want their kids to experience safe conditions.
That being said, you might as well stop the trains entirely if you're going to insist they crawl through at 5 mph. I don't know if this is a good short-term solution or not, but it is clearly not a long-term solution for either the parents, Gunn students, or Caltrain.
It's difficult for transit infrastructure to be designed in a way that can stop someone truly determined to kill themselves from doing so, as the Golden Gate Bridge and BART have discovered. That being said, this rash of suicides reminds us of the inherently dangerous nature of grade crossings where fast, heavy trains are operating. (Light rails and streetcars have potential issues - but then so does any other vehicle operated on the roads.)
Back in June this blog asked why the death toll of at-grade rail crossings was being excluded from the conversation about high speed rail on the Peninsula. The fact is that Caltrain on the Peninsula as it stands right now - at-grade through a densely populated urban area - is unsafe at any speed. A 5 mph slow order is no lasting solution to the problem of how to operate a modern passenger railroad safely through such a landscape.
Some may accuse me of "politicizing" the issue. But it has already been "politicized," long ago, by those who argue that their own property values and their own personal, idiosyncratic vision of urban aesthetics and what their community should "feel" like trumps the safety needs of the general population, including Gunn students.
"Politics" is the process by which individuals and groups make collective decisions, and how they weigh competing needs and desires. Right now in Palo Alto, there is a politics that prioritizes preserving the status quo over providing for safe, affordable, reliable, clean, and economically stimulating passenger rail. Whether the tracks go over or under the grade crossings, it is clear that the status quo for Caltrain and Palo Alto no longer works.
The community needs to come together to find a long-term solution to make the railroad as safe as possible, balancing that against the need for that railroad to continue operating at improved efficiency. They need to recognize that while there is no way to provide for perfect safety, some ideas, like grade separations, are such obvious parts of the solution that anyone who argues against them out of a desire to preserve their own pocketbook or their own sense of aesthetics should be, at best, questioned relentlessly about their priorities.