Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Unsafe At Any Speed

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

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.


Brandon in California said...

Did I read that argument correctly... that it will take only 4 seconds for a Caltrain train to clear an at-grade crossing in only 4 seconds at 5 mph?

Is there a typo in there?

Obviously that is not the case> Additionally, it takes longer than 1 second to do the same at 60 mph.

The letter is tragic on so many levels. Many schools have volunteer crossing attendants to guide kids across nearby streets. Such an idea at tracks seems much more plausible that gettign a railroad to slow down to 5 mph!

Evan said...

As someone who grew up in Palo Alto and went to school with some past students who took their lives this way, I certainly feel for the community and the families. I understand what they're asking for, but at the same time, as a daily Caltrain commuter, I also understand the impossibility of what they're asking.

You can't ask tens of thousands of people to distrupt their daily commute to slow the trains through this intersection.

They should be pushing for high-speed rail, or at least for Caltrain to put its tracks above ground or below ground. If you cut off >easy< access to the tracks, you make suicides much less likely to occur.

There's a reason people don't jump in front of trains at University Avenue — there's people around. By making stations the only place where people can access the tracks, you can prevent these horrible, horrible incidents.

That's the right approach for the long term, and for the short term it's hiring guards for the intersection and parents/friends doing all they can to watch over their children/peers.

After all, they're not talking about shutting down the Golden Gate bridge despite many more suicides there. Instead, they're putting up nets — cutting off access, just as they should do down here.

Anonymous said...

No, these are not volunteer crossing guards 'helping kids cross' - these are volunteers who are sitting at the tracks all night long. 24x7

Unsafe at any speed is exacty true, and so is HSR. This is not an issue of grade crossings, these are not little kids who don't understand how to cross safely. Determined kids or adults will get on the tracks, HSR or otherwise.

If stopping the trains completely is the only alternative you can think of - then so be it. That's a good solution too. Better even. However, undergrounding elmininates access for every place on the tracks besides stations - and then the stations can be secured by the operators.

This petition is simply inching in the direction of the inevitable - Caltrain (and therefore HSR if they want a piece of the Peninsula action) is going to have to step up to the plate to solve the attractive nuisance problem. Its on the rail operator, and the community is not going to just fade away on this issue.

Spokker said...

Does attractive nuisance apply to suicide? I doubt it. Attractive nuisance, which I personally think is overused but that's neither here nor there, tends to be applied when a kid thinks your pool is a fun place to be, but ends up drowning in it. I doubt it would be applied if some guy wanted to drown himself in your pool.

Anyway, the most common method for committing suicide is by firearm. Second is suffocation and third, poisoning.

Proposing that Caltrain slow to 5 MPH to deter suicides and proposing to put trains underground to deter suicides is incredibly retarded. I understand that grief can make people say some crazy things, I know, I've seen it for myself in my own family. But you cannot let irrational people motivated by grief make decisions for the rest of us. Their proposal should be shot down completely.

Spokker said...

"If you cut off >easy< access to the tracks, you make suicides much less likely to occur."

The medicine cabinet is more easily accessible than a railroad.

Making any capital infrastructure decisions based on suicides is irrational. There were four this year. The value of a life is not infinite, even for people who don't want to kill themselves.

There are better reasons to grade separate railroads when conditions warrant it, but preventing suicides is not one of them. Putting railroads underground is definitely not justifiable if all you want to do is prevent people from throwing themselves in front of a train.

Alai said...

1. I wonder if you could design some sort of airbag mounted to the front of the train that would deploy just before hitting a person and knock them aside with non-lethal force? Could require arming by the conductor to prevent expensive misfires, along with a radar-based trigger. Hardly a sure thing at 80 mph, but could still have an effect.

2. The same argument-- reducing speed limits to save lives-- can easily be made of the nation's roadways. Increased speeds are very strongly correlated with fatal accidents. Still, reducing speed limits even by 10 mph, even if it saves tens of thousands of innocent lives, is a non-starter.

Spokker said...

"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."

Actually, Robert, it's not unsafe at any speed. For Caltrain's 79 MPH operation, the current bells, whistles and crossing gates are more than enough to make safe operation possible on this railroad. People who wish to beat the train or cross tracks to save a minute get no sympathy from me.

This is not directed at you, Robert, but there also seems to be a double standard when it comes to road vs. rail safety. For some reason, people seem to bitch about trains more than cars, and I simply don't get it. Driving is so important to people that they will put up with substantially higher accident rates on roads, but if a train kills four suicidal teens and a few idiots who lack personal responsibility, watch out!

Anonymous said...

@anon Its on the rail operator, and the community is not going to just fade away on this issue.

you couldn't be more wrong. It most certainly is not on the rail operator. Not at all. Not even remotely.

Spokker said...

"Still, reducing speed limits even by 10 mph, even if it saves tens of thousands of innocent lives, is a non-starter."

Good example of the double standard.

I walk a mile from the bus stop at night on school days. If I get hit by a car, and the driver was not drinking and stopped to render aid, nothing happens whether or not they were driving negligently, i.e. too fast or not paying full attention. I'm just dead and no one gives a shit. I don't expect them to. It's my responsibility to follow the rules of the road and walk defensively, like making eye contact with drivers before stepping off the curb, not jaywalking and looking both ways. If I go into a city council meeting and ask that the speed limits be reduced to 25 MPH, I will be laughed out of the room.

But if I get hit by a train, I become a martyr for the Palo Alto Anti-Train Brigade. It doesn't make any goddamn sense.

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Peter said...

i think this post is monstrous in its insensitivity. best of luck with that -- hope it serves you well the rest of your life.

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Spokker said...

"i think this post is monstrous in its insensitivity."

"Railroad row is private property.

Trespassers are subject to arrest, injury and death."

Do you have anymore holier than thou indignation? Jim is 100% right and we're so damn liberal around here that nobody but him is going to say it. I'm pretty damn liberal too, but not about this. I applaud Jim for his honest analysis of the facts.

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Anonymous said...

ya think maybe PA could spare a 3 or 4 grand a month to hire a couple of minimum wage schlepps from across town as a security guards to patrol nearby? could they spare it? Or is the kids' safety only important if some one else is paying for it? hmmmm?
60,000 folks and median family income over 150k, think they could scrape it up?

Spokker said...

Don't worry, Jim. They'll get all indignant and say, "You wouldn't say that if you ever actually had someone in your family commit sucide!!!" as if they are the only ones to experience that kind of pain and suffering. Let me save them the time, yes I have, so don't f'ing lecture me.

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Anonymous said...

Im calm now. sorry for the outburst but damn people like that... man I just can't believe them. it just burns my ass.
and really, wouldn't the simplest, common sense solution be to in fact, have the city or the school district just hire one off the shelf security guard per 8 hour shift, to patrol the area. (3 total) you know, you'd be giving somebody a job, and you'd solve the problem.
So I have to ask the people of PA what's more important to them, to be right, and wait and make some one else do it, and keep arguing about it, of to just do it yourselves, like, first thing tomorrow morning, before any one else's kid is next?

What's more important?

Alon Levy said...

The world's most popular suicide site is the Golden Gate Bridge. Clearly, in the interest of public safety, the bridge must be demolished.

Reality Check said...


I guess you hadn't heard this:

Palo Alto hires guard to watch suicide-plauged Caltrain crossing

Rafael said...

Suicidal tendencies are a sign of mental illness, often but not always of severe clinical depression. Bring in a team of psychologists and make sure every student gets at least a few minutes of face time with one to identify the cases that may need additional counseling.

Hiring a grade crossing monitor is a good idea until the school and parents figure out if there's a common root cause for this cluster of suicides. Talk to your kids instead of making this about the tracks.

However, putting a slow order on Caltrain makes no sense to me. Even at 5mph, a train can still mangle a person that jumps onto the tracks at the last moment. These death's are NOT Caltrain's fault.

It's not an effective solution and the time penalty for nearly 40,000 Caltrain customers a day is substantially more than a few seconds. What's next, everyone has to drive at 5mph as well?

@ All Aboard -

you're not really going to make me clean up after your potty mouth again, are you? By now, you know the rules about civil discourse here. There's no reason to cuss, so please delete the offending comments yourself.

Anonymous said...

Of course the real solution to this problem, would be to shut down CalTrain, remove the tracks immediately.

Then HSR can find a new way to build its foolish project and not further endanger the lives and quality of life on the peninsula and elsewhere.

This whole project is such a disaster. Now it is no longer really a project to move people, but a jobs project. A project that is supposed to get the central valley back on its feet.

A new editorial


Fantasy tops reality: Schwarzenegger's foolish request to help high-speed rail

spells it all out.

TomW said...

Firstly, the whole "less than one second a 60mph, four at 5mph" is based onthe time taken for any bit of teh train to traverse the crossing. The time taken for the whole train is more than that.
Secondly, trains do nto slwo down and speed up instantly. The time penalty to the train is all the time they are travelling slower than 60mph while braking and accelerating. I don't know how much time taht adds, but I suspect it's of the order of a minute per corssing.
Thirdly, it is still possible to commoit suicide in front of a train travelling at 5mph.

I feel desperatly sorry for the families involved, who are clearly trying to figrue out a solution to a difficult problem other than corssing closeres or grade seperation.

Anonymous said...

Sorry --- link messed up --- here is correction.


A new editorial


Fantasy tops reality: Schwarzenegger's foolish request to help high-speed rail

spells it all out.

Andrew said...

The mad scientists at Stanford have done something catastrophic to the laws of physics in PA if they can slow a several hundred ton train down to 5 MPH from 60 and back up again in mere seconds.

Brandon in California said...

The ridiculousness of the request is obvious. It is soooo left field and impractical... I honestly do not know how it merits a blog post.

Actually, the same goes for all those blog posts originating from articles in itsy bitsy weekly rags.

This blog site has done more harm than goood.... simply by elevating beyond merit those arguments.

By the way, at 5 mph, it takes a 500 foot train approximately 80 seconds to clear 100 feet of street/sidewalk/switches. That says nothing of the time to decelerate or accelerate from those speeds back up to normal speed. And, can you imagine sitting at crossing gates in a car watching a train go by at 5 mph... essentially walking speed? RIDICULOUS!!!!

Brandon in California said...

Oh, Happy Thanksgiving.

I am travelling a short-distance today; however, if HSR were available.... I just may be taking that!

Jay said...

Happy T-Day everyone!
Anyway I like the approach my wife told me they take in Japan.
The railroad companies sue the family of the person that killed them selves.This is to recoup lost profits and inconvenience for the delay to the passengers on the trains.

Me...if someone is going to kill them selves , they will find a way to do it.
Laying blame at on the railroads is stupid.

dave said...

Why don't these people instead petition on counseling teenagers on suicide in general not bringing up the Caltrain suicides? This 5mph petition is garbage in that it will do nothing for a long term problem. It would be something psychological to give these parents some sort of comfort, but not a real solution at the expense of transportation.

You have to get to the root of the problem and give students some education on the matter and that will be more effective.

Anonymous said...

@ reality

Perfect, that's what makes sense. Nice to see common sense prevail.

dave said...

Brandon @ 8:16

I agree that this post does damage, if it were in the newspaper, on tv were it has more potential to be seen by more confused students and more looney parents who propose these kinds of things, but not here. Unless your saying that this blog is read by everyone and will stir up the suicide's again.

Anonymous said...

Just think how nice it would have been yesterday for all the millions of californians visiting relatives around the state if they could have gotten to where they were going in 1/3 the time!

dave said...

anon 6:18

"Of course the real solution to this problem, would be to shut down CalTrain, remove the tracks immediately."

Oh, man I love a good laugh in the morning. Thanks for that, but.... Not gonna' happen. On the contrary, HSR.

Clem said...

undergrounding elmininates access for every place on the tracks besides stations

So does an elevated, and so does an at-grade alignment with fences and/or sound walls on both sides.

Of course the real solution to this problem, would be to shut down CalTrain

And dump ~20,000 more cars into peninsula streets? I think nobody will like this, least of all daily Caltrain commuters who rely on the train to get safely and comfortably to work.

(yours truly included).

This petition is just a bit of community coping. They need to feel like they're doing something, anything. The petition will be presented to the JPB and politely dismissed.

Anonymous said...

How bout cameras?

Eric M said...

But what I also feel this petition is doing is alienating Palo Alto. This is a good thing because peolpe are tired of their antics, with this and that. Keep it up Palo Alto. One more thing to make you look like donkeys!!

Anonymous said...

time to get cookin... diets and new gym memberships start in 45 days.

Joey said...

Of course the real solution to this problem, would be to shut down CalTrain, remove the tracks immediately.

Great. While we're at it, why don't we shut down all of the roads and freeways in the nation as well. Since cars are so dangerous anyway, even to people not intending to kill themselves, clearly they must be eliminated.

Unsafe at any speed is exacty true, and so is HSR. This is not an issue of grade crossings, these are not little kids who don't understand how to cross safely. Determined kids or adults will get on the tracks, HSR or otherwise.


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.
(and that's coming from the PA parents themselves)

Need I say more? Do not underestimate the benefits of grade separations.

Anonymous said...

One thing about an elevated berm, is that if you climb up on it, you are very visible to everyone in the area. and just the additional steps needed to get up and over barriers and climb up a steep berm, only to then be clearly visible to all, is likely to be a discouragement.

Joey said...

I don't think there will be any easy way to climb up a berm. True, there will have to be ladders at various intervals for maintenance purposes, but access will undoubtedly be restricted to those locations, so I can't really see people going out of there way to try and get up there.

missiondweller said...

Once again, the trench solution is the one that provides grade- separation, is less unsightly. If PA wants to cover the trench, let them pay for it.

The debate on suicides just highlights that as soon as we can get the HSR project built, the sooner we'll have grade separation.

Evan said...

@spokker: I wasn't saying you should eliminate grade crossings for the express purpose of stopping suicides. What I'm saying is instead of crusading for Caltrain to go 5mph through these intersections, these parents should join the push for HSR. My point is that one of the benefits of HSR through the Peninsula is that it will likely solve the problem, because it will take away easy access to the tracks.

Spokker said...

Evan, maybe, maybe not.

Spokker said...

BART, fully grade separated, is no stranger to suicide. Beep boop.

Joey said...

So it appears that stations may be an issue after all. Wonder if platform screen doors would be feasible on a high-speed rail line.

Peter said...

As even stated by the petition, if you make it slightly difficult for those specific persons to commit suicide AT THAT LOCATION, they WILL NOT GO THROUGH WITH IT there or anywhere else.

That location has sentimental value to them, because others they know have committed suicide there.

Other people will not be deterred from committing suicide, as they may not have chosen that location to begin with.

Screen doors would require that Caltrain and HSR match up even more than just platform height. I don't think they would be worth the money. Railroads everywhere around the world operate without them, and they don't have excessively high suicide rates.

Rafael said...

@ Joey, Peter -

some shinkansen stations in Japan feature railings along the edge of the platforms, with breaks in the sections where the doors of stopping trains are. This works because the length and door positions of the trains are standardized and because automatic train control (ATC) ensures trains come to a full stop exactly where they are supposed to.

Note that there are no movable gates blocking the breaks in the railings until a train pulls in. The purpose of the gates therefore appears to be the prevention of accidents rather than suicides. Shinkansen platforms can get crowded and, there's always the possibility that a parent loses control of her baby's stroller or roaming toddler for even an instant.

Cp. a recent case in Australia. The baby involved miraculously survived with only minor injuries, but railings along the platform edge would have prevented the stroller from falling onto the tracks in the first place.

Rafael said...

@ Joey, Peter -

modern automated people mover systems at many airports around the world (e.g. Denver) go one further and completely seal off platforms from the tracks except when a train is in the station. I suspect airports insist on screen doors not just for safety but also to prevent unauthorized persons for using the tracks to gain access to secured areas of terminal buildings.

In principle, sliding doors could also be installed at the platforms of California HSR stations, provided that door positions are standardized, trains can reliably stop at exactly the right spot and, the whole system is properly maintained.

Alon Levy said...

Rafael, airport people movers are also fully automated, which makes it easier to install platform screen doors.

Andre Peretti said...

In its study of HSR systems the FRA stresses that, in France, non-stopping trains never run near platforms.
That probably means it will (rightly) oppose Japanese-style two-track stations.

Peter said...

@ Andre Peretti

When I was at the Alternatives Analysis meeting in San Jose, the Authority essentially stated that they plan on having every station be 4 tracks.

Joey said...

Even in Japan, at least where I was, it looked like most of the stations included run-through tracks.

CHSRA documents suggest that all stations, save terminal stations and major intermediate stations like San José and LAUS will have run-through tracks as well.

Exposed platforms still pose a minor safety hazard, however, even if all trains passing them stop. Consider the fact that trains are still slowing down when they enter the station.

Rafael said...

@ Peter, Joey -

run-through tracks at HSR stations would still have to be dedicated to HSR because of FRA's mixed traffic rule as well as capacity considerations.

If there are already tracks for freight/passenger rail based on FRA-compliant equipment, it will usually be very difficult or point blank impossible to fit four HSR tracks at stations and the necessarily long station approaches.

For example, consider Millbrae and Burbank.

If Caltrain gets a mixed traffic waiver and harmonizes the height of its platforms with HSR requirements, then HSR trains could perhaps leverage the Caltrain tracks for stopping at Millbrae. Those are two huge IFs and even then, there could be a capacity issue during Caltrain's rush hour.

In Burbank, there is no way for Amtrak Pacific Surfliner and the Metrolink Ventura line to switch to non-compliant equipment. CHSRA is not considering running its trains on the legacy tracks at station approaches there.

Bottom line: precisely because California failed to preserve sufficient railroad right of way, many California HSR stations will in fact have not four but two HSR tracks. This will severely limit the number of locations at which express HSR trains can overtake slower ones and therefore, impose significant constraints on timetable designers.

Expect some fraction of HSR trains to run through certain stations at 110-125mph on platform tracks. At those stations, safeguards such as railings or screens might be worth considering. The latter would have to be much stiffer and stronger than those used for airport people movers.

crzwdjk said...

Here's another equally good idea for that crossing: just put up a fence blocking off access to the railroad. Sure, the cars would have to go around to Oregon Expressway, but that's the price we have to pay for safety. I do imagine that the railroad was there first, and see no reason that the cars should get priority here. And I'm sure they could put up a pedestrian bridge pretty quickly if they really wanted to.

Alon Levy said...

Rafael, trains on the Peninsula are already limited to 200 km/h, lower than the speed at which the Acela skips two-track stops in Rhode Island.