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Menlo Park: Community examines rail-crossing hazards

Original post made on Mar 3, 2015

After a 35-year-old woman died when a bullet train struck her car at the Ravenswood Avenue crossing in Menlo Park, the community is searching for ways to prevent more tragedy.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Tuesday, March 3, 2015, 10:29 AM

Comments (33)

Posted by JC
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Mar 3, 2015 at 12:51 pm

"Move the crosswalk farther down the street. "

NO! Don't do that. The main pedestrian flow served by the crossing is between the station and down town on the one hand, and the civic center/library/park/gym on the other. What this suggestion involves is a detour to the flow that means either pedestrians will have a long extra walk, or they will unsafely dart across the road anyway at the original spot. (And don't forget that they will have the right of way in that case, unless specifically otherwise signed, because an unmarked crosswalk would still be in effect.)

Also, my understanding is that the recent accident was on the west-bound side, so in that case, a relocated crosswalk would not have helped the driver.

If you want to be safe, put in full traffic lights controlling all of the Alma St interchange, the pedestrian crossing and the railroad crossing, the latter being able to trigger a red light with stationary traffic sensors if Ravenswood jams up.

Posted by Giovanni
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 3, 2015 at 3:04 pm

Although a bad idea, moving the crosswalk makes a lot more sense than trying to install a traffic light at that crazy intersection. Logistically it just won't work without causing more of a mess than already exists. The traffic light would need to coordinate with the train AND light at ECR, which is logistically impossible without creating huge traffic backups during commute hours.

The only immediate solution that will help but not completely solve the mayhem would be to eliminate ALL left turns to/from Alma at ALL times. A traffic barrier of some kind would need to be installed down the middle of Ravenswood to prevent people from breaking the law.

I'm afraid the crosswalk is here to stay although I think moving it closer to Noel would help.

Posted by Downtowner
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Mar 3, 2015 at 4:29 pm

A single pedestrian in the Alma crosswalk can stop cars & cause a backup west of the tracks, especially combined with the lane merge.

Ban left turns at Alma, from both directions. Separate the grades. MP will subsidize a new boutique hotel but won't spend for safer streets? Sure, keep increasing housing density & local population only if all permit & development monies will go toward grde separation.

Fastest fix is a traffic signal @ Ravenswood & the tracks, synced or triggered to train passings. Prepare for back-ups on Menlo Ave for 4 blocks instead of the current 2 blocks. Oh, and keep putting in more housing to increase our population, making our streets & traffic even less fuctional.

Posted by Giovanni
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 3, 2015 at 4:40 pm

Downtowner: Why is a traffic light needed @ Ravenswood and the tracks, synced with train passings? Isn't that what the crossing gate is for? How will a traffic light make a difference when traffic already stops when a train crosses?

Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 3, 2015 at 5:09 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Right turns from Southbound Alma at Ravenswood and left turns from Northbound Alma to Ravenswood should also be banned.

Posted by Giovanni
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 3, 2015 at 5:21 pm

Peter, if southbound (by the train station) traffic can't turn right onto Alma and need to make their way to El Camino, they will need to head towards the Oak Grove crossing and turn left, which is even more dangerous and almost impossible during commute hours.

Left turns from northbound Alma to Ravenswood and southbound Alma to Ravenswood should definitely be banned.

Posted by Giovanni
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 3, 2015 at 5:28 pm

I meant, if southbound traffic coming from Alma can't turn right onto Ravenswood to reach El Camino, they will need to head towards Oak Grove and turn left, which is very dangerous and almost impossible during rush hour.

Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 3, 2015 at 5:38 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"I meant, if southbound traffic coming from Alma can't turn right onto Ravenswood to reach El Camino, they will need to head towards Oak Grove and turn left,"

I estimate that 99% of the Southbound traffic on Alma approaching Ravenswood came FROM Oak Grove - they are taking a short cut and frequently use traffic stopped at the CalTRANS gate as a way to sneak onto Ravenswood. There are no residences on Alma between Oak Grove and Ravenswood.

Posted by Downtowner
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Mar 3, 2015 at 5:38 pm

Giovanni - Two traffic lights, one on either side of the tracks, are more effective at stopping cars than bells & a gate. The visuals help & other towns do bracket the tracks. A signal will also stop pedestrians, eliminating them as an impediment to getting cars off the tracks more quickly.

Posted by Giovanni
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 3, 2015 at 5:55 pm

Actually Peter, most of the apartments on the west side of Noel Drive park in parking garages on Alma Lane, and the only way to reach Alma Lane from Oak Grove is to turn onto Alma. There are also office buildings, shops, a restaurant, 7-11 and train parking on Alma between Oak Grove and Ravenswood, which is another reason people turn onto Alma from Oak Grove.

Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 3, 2015 at 6:03 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"There are also office buildings, shops, a restaurant, 7-11 and train parking on Alma between Oak Grove and Ravenswood, which is another reason people turn onto Alma from Oak Grove."

None of these then require making a right turn at Ravenswood.

Posted by Giovanni
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 3, 2015 at 6:22 pm

Peter, if those drivers are headed towards El Camino to drive south or to cross El Camino to reach Menlo Ave they will need to turn right on Ravenswood. Are you suggesting that they all head towards Oak Grove where turning left is almost impossible during rush hour? Try it some time.

I'm done with this discussion.

Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 3, 2015 at 8:03 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Glad that you are done - your choice.

My choice is to choose safety over convenience which is why many turns are prohibited at many intersections.

A VERY safe alternative for those very few whose origins are on Alma between Oak Grove and Ravenswood and who want to go South is to go North to Oak Grove, turn right and then another right on Laurel and then another right on Ravenswood.

UPS requires its drivers to make three right turn to avoid a left turn because this is a much safer alternative.

Posted by Nathan Wind
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Mar 3, 2015 at 8:18 pm

This is not that hard. Raise the rail a bit, sink the road a bit, and move on. It worked fine for San Carlos/Belmont (hey Almanac, why don't you actually report- go analyze that project instead of just typing people's opinions). Even the San Bruno project that raised the rails higher looks fine.

For all of the histrionic "Berlin Wall" comparisons with raised rails, it's the current configuration that actually kills people. Menlo Park City Council: Stop playing games with peoples' lives to try and make a point with High Speed Rail or kowtow to Morris Brown. Rails up, road down. LEAD!

Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 3, 2015 at 8:38 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

While tunneling is expensive it is a one-time expense.
The cost of traffic delays, injuries and deaths are a recurring expense.

Pay now or pay every year.

Posted by Louise68
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Mar 4, 2015 at 12:35 am

Why was this very important meeting held in a place that can only hold a very small number of people? If the subject of grade-separating Ravenswood is really that important -- it is! -- and if the other issues about Ravenswood and Alma are really that important -- and they are! -- then why in heaven's name wasn't this incredibly important meeting held in the City Council Chambers?

My input is that that pedestrian crossing on Ravenswood just east of the tracks must be closed ASAP! It is much, much, much too dangerous to use and it almost always causes huge traffic delays. It also is not a proper signaled intersection and gives pedestrians a false sense of security. Those flashing lights in the pavement cannot be seen by driversuntil you are too close to them to stop safely. I absolutely detest those lights-in-the-pavement pedestrian crossings. They are very dangerous to both pedestrians and drivers and ALL of them should be removed ASAP and replaced with full signals. NO excuses!

And it is past time to grade-separate Ravenswood and Oak Grove. Yes, it is expensive but it must be done. The sooner started, the sooner done.

No, I do not care at all for the wall/berm like the one in San Carlos, but it seems to be the only design that would not require taking a huge amount of land at both the ECR-Ravenswood and ECR-Oak Grove intersections, and at the present small business and apartment areas and the Civic Center and Library area, as well.

Posted by Ray Mueller
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Mar 4, 2015 at 6:40 am

Hi Louise,

Thank you for your feedback. Fortunately no one was turned away Monday night due to space. We actually had more than enough room to create a circle where everyone could face each other. Originally the event was planned as my office hours, after an individual who was on the scene of the accident contacted me wanting to talk without having to wait a month for official City Meetings with staff reports on the topic. Later it was re-noticed as a community meeting after other colleagues on the City Council indicated the wanted to attend, in order to avoid a Brown Act violation. However the office hours still were not an official City Council Meeting. Because the notice with the location for my office hours had already gone out so there could be no confusion we kept the office hours at Cafe Zoe. Nonetheless there will be plenty of meetings in City Hall in the future on this topic. We kept notes, that will be forwarded to staff. But like I said, we had plenty of room Monday night.

Councilmember Ray Mueller

Posted by think and rethink
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Mar 4, 2015 at 7:53 am

This is a good time to rethink decisions.
The city closed off the street next to what is now the Arrillaga rec center, making it much more difficult for residents west of Alma to return from the library and gym at certain hours. Some proposals would ban all left turns onto Ravenswood, making all west Menlo residents go the long way around on Alma, Burgess, Laurel to Ravenswood.
There are NO plans for grade separation, which ideally should be determined in the very long term context of growth in Menlo Park and surrounding areas.
There are plans to put more turn lanes from northbound El Camino onto Ravenswood, moving more vehicles squarely into this mess.
There are NO plans to deal with all the extra traffic from the specific plan, much less the proposed projects that exceed the plan's forecasts.
There are NO plans for infrastructure improvements, much less the means to fund them even though the city gave away very considerable development rights.
Current El Camino traffic studies stop in scope before the train and Alma intersections, and before current gridlocked areas such as the Safeway driveway on Middle.
Too much is being examined in piece parts rather than comprehensively and holistically. The specific planning process was a decent start, but only a start. Time to think and rethink.

Posted by Mike Keenly
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Mar 4, 2015 at 9:36 am

How about we start by increasing police patrols at the Ravenswood CalTrain intersection?

The following video aired last night on KRON4's 'People Behaving Badly'. Apparently, many drivers have learned nothing from the incident:

Web Link

Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Mar 4, 2015 at 1:14 pm

Reality Check is a registered user.

Here's the link to Stanley Robert's "People Behaving Badly" video segment just shot at the Ravenswood crossing:

Web Link

Of course, anyone who cares to (including MPPD!) can easily sit and watch people foolishly and blatantly violating CVC 22526(d) at Ravenswood any day of the week:

Web Link

People who complain it's impossible to avoid getting "stuck" on the tracks must be very poor drivers. I am disturbed to know I'm sharing the road with them! They lamely blame peds and people cutting in front, but honestly, with a modicum of situational awareness and appropriately generous following distances, it's really not difficult to ensure you are never "forced" to stop on the tracks ... and, if, for some reason, you find your vehicle is stopped in the path of an oncoming train, it's really not that hard to back up and/or forward and/or to the side and out of harm's way ... but, again, that requires a modicum of situational awareness ... and, if for some unimaginable reason, there is no room to do that ... there's always plenty of time to exit your car and get out harm's way as a last resort.

Posted by Roxanne Rorapaugh
a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Mar 4, 2015 at 1:53 pm

The City Council should immediately make the policy changes necessary to allow the tracks to be elevated above the roadway.

Posted by SteveC
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 4, 2015 at 2:09 pm

SteveC is a registered user.

Better to loose your car than your life. The bells mean something is about to happen!

Posted by elevate the tracks now
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 4, 2015 at 2:23 pm

If the city is serious about safety, then build grade separations as soon as possible. Elevating the tracks is much easier to do and can be finished many years sooner, because of both the financing issues and the construction issues. Elevating the tracks is a proven technique that has already been used in many other parts of San Mateo County. People pushing for tunneling or nothing are really just stalling; that is not likely to be finished in our lifetimes.

Posted by Steve Taffee
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Mar 4, 2015 at 4:48 pm

I'm pleased to see that there's a serious discussion of alternatives for making the Ravenswood-Caltrain crossing taking place on this forum.

I think that most people would agree that the safest long-term solution for car-train crossings is a grade separation, raising rails, lowering roads, or some combination thereof. Options are available to lessen the visual impact of grade separations, and some options might even remove or lessen the physical barriers that currently exist in the fenced rail Caltrain corridor. Addressing the contentious issue of electrification simultaneously with grade separations is logical, even at the expense of lengthening the process due to additional questions. My preference is to deal with hard issues once rather than revisit them every few years.

The ideas about limiting turns from Alma to Ravenswood are worthy of serious consideration. The time of day restrictions for left turns from Alma are not enough, in my view to sufficiently address the problem. Other options such as a traffic light at Alma and Ravenswood, longer yellow lights at El Camino to allow traffic to clear, making Alma a one-way street, and anything else that we can some up should likewise be vetted./

Let the professional engineers work on this and make recommendations to the City, with plenty of opportunity for public comment.

As members of the public we will need to ask ourselves the uncomfortable question of "how much is a human life worth?" How much "inconvenience" will the public tolerate in the name of safety. Similarly, how much money are we willing to spend to create short- and long-term solutions for safety? How we answer these questions reveals much about ourselves as a community.

As has been pointed out by others in this thread, holistic solutions in which the entire system of building development, traffic assessment, and safety mitigation should be engage in simultaneously rather than piecemeal. However, sometime you need to act when situations are imposed upon you that call for less than ideal approaches. This may be one of those. In such as case you do the best you can with the available information, and try to not make decisions that would have adverse systems effects.

Posted by think and rethink
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Mar 4, 2015 at 5:45 pm

Let's face it, whatever is built will be there for a very very long time, so imo it's worth taking a little extra time to create the very best plan for the very long haul. The implementation of a strong long-term plan should then be pushed like crazy.

Cities in Europe have not put raised tracks through desirable residential neighborhoods. We don't have to do so, either. Other cities like Palo Alto and Atherton are very interested in undergrounding, too. MP should get together with them.

Safety is only one consideration. It's an important one, but only one. Others include character of our city and opportunities to enhance our town center, improvements to bicycle and pedestrian, ability to accommodate increased populations locally and regionally on roads, pathways, trains; impacts on residents and businesses.

Posted by another hazard
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Mar 4, 2015 at 5:59 pm

Another hazardous situation arises when one turns out of the business parking lot just west of the RR crossing headed east, and upon entering the roadway the car in front stops because it wants to go right on Alma but pedestrians are crossing Alma. This happened to me today after shopping at Big 5, and I know that people cut through there all the time. The driver of the car in front of me did not have their turn signal on but suddenly stopped right on the other sides of the tracks to let the pedestrians pass. It is very difficult to see pedestrians crossing Alma from that vantage point.

Posted by No Easy Solutions
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Mar 4, 2015 at 8:24 pm

For any proposed solution, the pedestrians and drivers need to coexist and share the road. Eliminating the current pedestrian crossing penalize them for the benefit of drivers. A potential unintended consequence may be more pedestrians jaywalking, which could end up with more accidents.

A Willow/Sand Hill Expressway (with grade separation like Embarcado or Oregon Exp) could have been a solution a long whiles back, but hey that train has left the station.

Posted by Boardermom
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Mar 5, 2015 at 7:43 am

About 5 years ago or so, a car was hit on the tracks on Whipple Avenue and a man was killed. In his case, the El Camino light suddenly changed when an ambulance came through, stopping traffic and he was caught on the tracks. At the time, there were permanent medians between the lanes, preventing him from moving his vehicle out of harm's way. A few months later, the crossing was changed to remove the permanent medians. Since that accident, I rarely see cars stopped on the tracks, if ever and I pass through that intersection more times each day than I care to count. It is my understanding that some people freeze in an emergency and some people can calmly do what they need to do. It is unkind and lacking compassion to suggest that the woman killed in Menlo Park could have saved herself by getting out of her car. We don't know. We weren't there. Maybe her music was turned up. Maybe her car was very sound proofed. Maybe she was distracted or experiencing sleep deprivation from raising a small child.

Perhaps a better solution in the short term would be an overhead pedestrian bridge or underground tunnel that would allow people and bikes to pass over or under the Ravenswood intersection safely without stopping cars. It won't cost as much as raising the tracks. In any event, the intersection needs to redesigned to allow cars to cross safely and completely without getting held up by cars turning left, pedestrians or bikers.

Posted by History lesson
a resident of Menlo Park: South of Seminary/Vintage Oaks
on Mar 5, 2015 at 3:59 pm

Here's the link to the 2004 Grade Separation Study. We've been down this road before. $250K for the '04 study and $750K for the study that should begin ASAP. A million bucks ought to get us to the stage where a decision can be made by our council.

Web Link

Posted by close to home
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Mar 6, 2015 at 2:21 am

I favor the Willow-to-Sand Hill expressway that has apparently left the station, or tunneling any other reasonable street under the tracks.

Meanwhile, traffic on Ravenswood can slow down in both directions right after crossing the tracks, and we can make this less dumb even if we can't get our grade-separation act together. We can try to make everything faster, turning Ravenswood into a mini expressway, or try to slow drivers down before they cross the tracks instead of after.

The nuclear slow-down option would be stop signs on Ravenswood for drivers entering the tracks. Less extreme slowing: narrowing to one lane each way before the tracks coupled with signage. Flashing lights on the crosswalk signs for better visibility. An early sign showing the lane layout for drivers approaching El Camino might help reduce lane changes after crossing the tracks.

Speed up options would be the suggested light change at El Camino, blocking certain turns onto and from Alma and Merrill, sending traffic to Laurel and maybe Oak Grove instead and moving or tunneling/bridging the crosswalk. The current crosswalk is incredibly convenient though, so you'd have to do something to keep people from crossing there anyway.

It seems easier to slow people down than speed them up. For better or worse it also fits with our general pattern of making Menlo Park really discouraging to drivers.

Posted by think and rethink
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Mar 6, 2015 at 9:23 am

Has anyone ever asked the commercial property owners and developers and businesses what they think of the difference in value to them and their tenants between undergrounding or elevating the trains?
What are the difference in views, shadows, noise experienced by occupants and customers from their buildings and what value differences would there be to them?

Posted by Roxanne Rorapaugh
a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Mar 6, 2015 at 10:26 am

The victim was killed traveling west on Ravenswood, she had already passed the crosswalk, I think this crsswalk does need to be changed, but don't think it is what causes the people stopping on the tracks when they are traveling west on Ravenswood.
The answer is grade separations, safety is primary, we don't need to bury the tracks,. We should pressure the city council to get the project moving, change the city's rail policies that are in the way of getting funding and start working with Caltrain like we should have in the first place.

Posted by Member
a resident of another community
on Mar 6, 2015 at 3:54 pm

The reason there have been so few tickets given for illegal turns at Alma is because there is so little enforcement of the law. Each afternoon, especially when there is a tournament at the Gym, drivers blatantly ignore the No Left Turn sign blocking the intersection and jeopardizing other drivers on Ravenswood. Get some daily enforcement out there and maybe the cost of a ticket will help educate everyone.

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