SamTrans probe: Bus breaks rail crossing arm | August 7, 2013 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - August 7, 2013

SamTrans probe: Bus breaks rail crossing arm

by Sandy Brundage

SamTrans says it could take weeks to complete an investigation into why a SamTrans bus broke off a lowering railroad crossing arm and hurtled across the tracks at Oak Grove Avenue in Menlo Park shortly before the train arrived.

More than 24 hours after witnesses reported the incident at 9:23 a.m. Tuesday, July 30, SamTrans confirmed it was one of their buses.

The driver, an employee of the transit agency for more than 10 years, did report the accident, according to SamTrans spokesperson Christine Dunn. She attributed the delay in confirming the vehicle's involvement to work schedules and locations making it difficult to reach the right staff.

Ms. Dunn said the driver is now off work pending the completion of the investigation, as is standard procedure.

Bus 119, running route 296, had just left the Menlo Park Caltrain station carrying five passengers before breaking off the railroad crossing arm, Ms. Dunn said. No one was injured. Further details were not available due to the ongoing investigation.

Investigators will analyze eyewitness accounts, the GPS log from the bus as well as video footage from an onboard camera, according to the transit agency.

An accident review committee that includes SamTrans Superintendent Karambir Cheema as well as the driver's union representative will review the findings to determine whether the accident was preventable, who was at fault and what sort of discipline may be warranted.

SamTrans asks that anyone with information about the accident contact Mr. Cheema by phone at 508-6401 or via email at

The Almanac reported earlier that witnesses were sure it was a SamTrans bus. "There's not a doubt in my mind that it was SamTrans," one said. "VTA buses look really different."

According to the state vehicle code, buses must stop between 15 and 50 feet from a railroad crossing and listen for approaching trains before proceeding across the tracks. Ms. Dunn confirmed that SamTrans buses follow the code, and added that if gates are down, drivers must wait until the arms rise and warning bells stop ringing.

"I heard a loud snapping sound and looked up to see (the eastbound) SamTrans bus hurtling across the tracks, and the crossing arm flying through the air over the bus and coming to land on the tracks at Oak Grove Avenue," a witness said.

Seconds later, southbound train 230 arrived and ran over the broken crossing arm, she said. "The arm was lying across the tracks roughly perpendicularly when the train approached. The engine appeared to run right over the crossing arm, which eventually came to rest alongside the tracks."

Conductors got off the train and investigated the crossing. After about three minutes, the train got underway to Palo Alto, according to a witness.

"The bus clearly ran the crossing ... bells were ringing and arms were going down," she said. "It was one of those big, double buses, heading eastbound on Oak Grove."

The bus continued down the street after crossing the tracks, she said.

Multiple people called 911 about the incident. Menlo Park police responded to the scene for traffic control, but jurisdiction over the investigation lies with the transit division of the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office.

SamTrans confirmed there was no damage to the train. Ms. Dunn said approaching trains were alerted to slow down as they proceeded through the crossing until work crews finished repairing the crossing arm.