Caltrain, car death was 'an accident waiting to happen'

Track watchers say there are scores of near misses similar to Friday's incident

The death of an Indiana driver at the Charleston Road train crossing during rush-hour on Friday (April 15) has left many in Palo Alto saying that it was a fatal accident waiting to happen.

Members of Palo Alto's volunteer Track Watch program have observed dozens of near misses involving cars and Caltrain, and they are calling attention to several issues they believe could have contributed to the woman's death.

The victim has been identified as Judy Goldblatt, 65, of Indianapolis, Ind., the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner's office reported today.

Recent changes made as part of a $5.8 million Caltrain safety-improvement project as well as the city's street-resurfacing work have reduced the "buffer" between Alma Street and the tracks, volunteers said this weekend. The work has also reduced the volume of warning-signal bells.

Some volunteers and others in the community have suggested that traffic lights at the Charleston Road, East Meadow and Churchill crossings should be added to the west side of the tracks. Eastbound drivers get caught on the tracks when the light changes, they said.

The track watchers, who patrol the tracks to prevent suicides, said they have seen many harrowing close calls.

"It really was an accident waiting to happen," Grace Pariente said.

"I staffed Track Watch for an hour a week for a year, typically at 9 p.m. in the middle of the week. There were a handful of times when I witnessed a car on the tracks when a train was coming. They always had a car in front so they could not go forward. Some went backwards, one went around crossing the yellow line into oncoming traffic. One hit the gate as it was descending.

"But the most frightening one was a woman who kept going forward and backward, apparently panicked with nowhere to go. The light changed and cars ahead of her cleared out so she was able to go forward, but it was too close for comfort," Pariente said.

It "seems simple enough to put the stop light before the tracks, so there is never any need to squeeze into that area between the intersection and the tracks."

Susan Solomon agreed.

"I began monitoring the railroad-track areas at both Meadow and Charleston as part of Track Watch since the program began. Perhaps once an hour I saw a car slightly 'trapped' between Alma and the railroad tracks with the rear of the car dangerously close to the tracks," she said.

"This happens as part of a few common patterns. Cars cross the tracks at both Meadow and Charleston, proceeding towards the Alma intersection while the traffic light at Alma is green. The impatient drivers frequently speed up when approaching the tracks, apparently trying to both cross the tracks and pass through the intersection on the green light. If the light turns red, that car may be 'trapped' behind another car in the small area between Alma and the tracks," she said.

"Drivers also cross over the tracks when the light at Alma has already turned red and there is another car stopped at the intersection. These drivers sometimes misgauge the amount of room between the car ahead and the tracks or sometimes appear oblivious as to whether or not there will be a safe amount of room.

"When the warning bells are not ringing, such cars will often remain with the rear of the car dangerously close to or even over the tracks waiting for the light to turn green. If the warning bells begin to ring, the trapped car driver often honks for the car in front to inch up into the intersection. The front car usually does inch up, but not always. The driver of the front car may not want to risk entering too far into the Alma intersection with the cross traffic passing by having a green light.

"Once I even saw a police car behind another car stopped at a red light at Alma with the back of the police car too close to the tracks. The police car waited in that dangerous position for several seconds. It then moved out of the way by squeezing past the car in front over the right curb and turning right on Alma," she said.

Some residents said the limit line at Charleston was moved back toward the tracks after the road was resurfaced. Even longtime residents have been caught unaware, they said. Others said the warning bells are quieter since the recent safety improvements, and motorists can't hear the bells when their windows are up and radios are on. By the time they realize a train is coming, the gates are down and the drivers are trapped.

Caltrain and Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority officials have not yet returned phone calls and emails seeking comment. More information will be added to this story today as it becomes available.

In 2007, a Sunnyvale driver was killed at the Meadow train crossing when her westbound car lurched in front of a northbound train.

Related story:

Train hits car in Palo Alto, kills out-of-town driver

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