By Gordon Lewin
A car is stuck on the train tracks. Inside is a mother with two young children. An express train barrels past a suburban train station. That evening, a father comes home to an empty house.
Menlo Park in 2016? I certainly hope not. Yet, that accident did happen in Highland Park, Illinois, my childhood hometown. I was in middle school at the time. A teacher lectured us on the dangers of train crossings; how express trains can't stop quickly. My mother showed me a picture in our community newspaper of the crumpled station wagon in a ditch.
Frankly, I didn't give much thought to it until three years later, when my driver's education teacher directed me to that same train crossing and then told me to stop the car. He pointed out where the crumpled station wagon had landed and warned me to never drive over train tracks unless I could see that I had room on the other side.
That made an impression. From then on, I was always a bit cautious near train tracks; I had never been stuck on tracks. Until two years ago at Ravenswood Avenue.
It's a familiar story. A line of cars is moving slowly but smoothly toward Alma. Then, a pedestrian begins crossing the street near the library. Cars come to an abrupt halt. Sometimes a car is stuck on the tracks.
This time, it was my car. I couldn't believe. Then, the crossing gates began coming down. I had an adrenaline rush. Do I jump out? I noticed a train slowly leaving the station. I was lucky. I doubted the conductor would play "chicken" with me, but the traffic began to move before I had to find out.
Afterwards, I was upset with myself. How could this happen to me? I have always been so cautious. I remembered the picture my mother showed me of the crumpled station wagon. If this could happen to me, it could happen to anyone. And it did.
What makes the Ravenswood crossing so dangerous is not the geometrics but the surprises. No one expects cars to stop so suddenly. And it happens frequently because there is so much activity in both directions. We all know not to stop on train tracks. It is the surprises that we are not anticipating.
Perhaps electronic signs warning that "Cars stop suddenly -- don't get caught on tracks" would help. Perhaps a stop sign at Alma westbound would serve the same function as metering lights at freeway on-ramps.
Yet, Ravenswood is not the only scene of tragic train accidents. They have happened in Palo Alto and around the country. Perhaps this is a problem that Silicon Valley could help solve.
Google and others are developing "driverless" cars. "Accident avoidance" technology is being added to automobiles today. Perhaps someone could invent "motionless car" detectors that could give timely warning to an approaching train when a car is stuck on the tracks.
Grade separation may come someday to Menlo Park and better technology to the country. In the meantime, I'm slowing before a train crossing until I see room for my car on the other side -- even when traffic is moving.
Yet, as I drive down Ravenswood Avenue, that particular train crossing will always be associated with sadness for the young child who lost a mother so needlessly.
Gordon Lewin is a longtime Menlo Park resident, and a former member of the Sequoia Union High School District and Menlo Park City School District governing boards.