Caltrain gears up rail safety campaign 

Last year, fatalities on San Mateo County train tracks climbed to 17, tying an 11-year high. Four teenagers died on the tracks. As local officials grappled for solutions and families grieved, Caltrain came under mounting pressure to increase safety.

As a result, in recent months the commuter train agency responded with unprecedented resources to avoid a permanent, public black eye. Staff underwent additional training, new safety personnel were hired, a rail education campaign was launched and millions of dollars were set aside for fencing and rail-crossing upgrades.

Nancy Emro, a volunteer with the nonprofit Operation Lifesaver, an international railroad safety group, has worked with Caltrain to educate area schoolchildren for years. She took up the cause after her 17-year-old son, Sean, was hit and killed in 2000 on the tracks as he walked home from school in Sunnyvale.

"I think it has taken some of these [2006] tragedies to bring it to more prominence," Emro said.

Since launching its public safety awareness campaign, "Don’t Shortcut Life," in May 2006, Caltrain has trained more rail safety personnel and hired a full-time safety outreach coordinator, Emro said.

In addition, Caltrain has expanded outreach to schools near the tracks, instituted a "zero tolerance" trespassing policy and earmarked more than $6 million for fencing and other safety features for the next three years, Caltrain spokesman Jonah Weinberg said.

All of these measures are part of Caltrain’s new approach to track deaths, whether they be accidents or suicides. The agency now deals with the deaths more frankly, said Jerry Hill, president of the Board of Supervisors and a Caltrain board member.

"Caltrain recognizes that we’re part of the problem and have to be part of the solution," Hill said.

Of the 17 people who died on Caltrain tracks in 2006, seven have officially been ruled suicides. Two other deaths, Weinberg said, may also be ruled suicides. The number of deaths tied 2000 figures, according to Caltrain.

While acknowledging the toll deaths take on families and riders, Caltrain officials were quick to point out that the jump in the number of deaths follows a substantial increase in the number of trains on the Peninsula.

Since 2002, Caltrain has added 20 trains for a total of 96, to accommodate Baby Bullet services, while preventing even higher numbers of deaths, such as the 20 that occurred in 1995, Hill said.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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