Caltrain to mount cameras on front of trains

Video cameras to be added to locomotives or cab cars to improve security and record accidents

Video cameras mounted on the front of locomotives could be installed by Caltrain in August, pending a clarification of how the recordings would be saved or retained, the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board decided on Thursday (July 7).

Caltrain has planned for several years to mount the cameras on the front of the trains to function like an aircraft's "black box." The idea is to monitor illegal or suspicious activities on its right-of-way, spokeswoman Christine Dunn said.

Caltrain has been seeking ways to keep people from committing such acts as trespassing on its right-of-way, vandalizing stored trains, and even sabotaging the tracks through acts of terrorism, she said.

The rail agency applied for a California Transit Security Grant in 2008 to pay for the purchase and installation of the cameras, she said. The grant program is part of Proposition 1B, approved by voters in 2006, which provides $1.5 billion to increase protection against a security threat to transit systems. It also includes grants to improve the safety of rail crossings and other transportation modes.

Caltrain said that to date this year, there have been 181 incidents of police contacts with individuals or removals of people from trains, stations and the right-of-way. During the same period last year, there were 213 such incidents.

Infraction citations, including for trespassing, total 205 so far this year, down from 244 last year.

Caltrain stopped eight potential suicide attempts since January 2011 and nine attempts in 2010.

The forward-facing digital cameras would serve several purposes, Caltrain said, including recording accidents and suicides that take place in front of the train. The cameras would also help review railroad signal colors up to 2,000 feet away and check the condition of grade crossings in all weather conditions, according to a staff report.

The cameras would be installed on as many as 20 locomotives and cab cars, Ms. Dunn said. Caltrain would have the option of adding cameras to 45 more trains, and purchasing five extra cameras, she said. The installation is scheduled to begin in August and would be completed by the end of the year.

The total cost of the project is $1.5 million and is entirely paid for by the grant, she added.

The contract would be awarded to Railhead Corporation of Alsip, Illinois, which was chosen from three bidders, according to the staff report.

Board members voted unanimously to allow Executive Director Michael Scanlon to execute the contract at his discretion, pending a clarification of just how long the videos would be retained.

"This will give counsel more time to research how videos of the right of way and other Caltrain property might impact our overall security. By way of example, Caltrain does not release maps of the right of way for security reasons. We would not want to release video of the right of way for the same reason," Dunn said.

Some residents told board members that a recent news article claimed that sensitive videos of accidents and suicides could end up on the Internet. But Mark Simon, Caltrain executive officer of public affairs, called the story "speculative."

Mr. Scanlon said questions had recently emerged regarding whether the videos could be accessible through the California Public Records Act. He said he wanted legal counsel to review the statutes.

But he added he had been told the cameras, which record continuously, would record over previous material in a loop, except in the case of accidents, when the footage would be retained.

Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, an open-government advocacy group, said the legality of whether tapes made by a transportation agency could be exempt from the Public Records Act has never been fully explored.

Any video or audio recordings that are used in a criminal investigation by law enforcement are exempt, he said.

"But it's not clear that the same principal would apply to a transportation agency if they are using the videos for a whole array of purposes," he said.

An act of sabotage would be a criminal act that could preclude public access to the evidence during an investigation, he said.

Whether attempted suicides would be considered criminal acts is something he said he could not answer. Suicides can't very well be prosecuted, he noted.

"There's no real exemption from the Public Records Act that focuses on distaste about what people might do with the images," he said.

"This business about grizzly images floating up on the Internet surprises me," he said. "I would have thought anything like that would be under and behind the train and wouldn't be caught on a camera in front of the train." But he noted the videos would capture images of anyone sitting or standing on the tracks.

Recordings that are used in investigations could become public if they are introduced as evidence in a trial, he said.

Caltrain is also installing a closed-circuit television system at its centralized equipment maintenance and operations facilities in San Jose, which include the train yard, storage areas, parking lot and entrances, according to a security report.

The Joint Powers Board also unanimously approved an extension of the current contract with the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office, which has 13 personnel who patrol Caltrain and investigate crimes and accidents.

Among seven "significant events" that the Sheriff's Office personnel handled during May: Transit police prevented a woman from jumping in front of a train at the San Jose Diridon station; caught two men stealing bicycles at the Palo Alto University Avenue station; arrested a man at the Atherton station who threatened a conductor on a train and was in possession of two steak knives; responded to the Palo Alto station regarding a man who was jumping onto the side of a moving train and then jumping off (it was determined he had engaged in horseplay and he was cited for the offense); responded to a vehicle-train accident at Millbrae (there were no injuries); and broke up a fight between two men in San Mateo, according to the safety report.

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