Ken Garcia: Caltrain’s running on time, but blood on the tracks worrisome 

It’s a good thing that Caltrain officials finally appear to be going the extra mile on public safety measures, providing extra training, public education and monetary resources.

After all, considering its record in the past year, when it comes to public safety, the agency is more than a little behind schedule.

Caltrain is touting its increased ridership, added runs and a host of other progress markers, and perhaps rightly so. But what really stands out during the past year is the incredible number of fatalities on its Peninsula tracks — 17 — tying an 11-year high.

Facing mounting public pressure because of the death toll, the commuter train agency has set aside $6 million in the next three years for new fencing and added enforcement along its rails — things that have been needed for years. And while I applaud the agency for reacting to the safety problem, it may be premature to report that it is making "impressive progress on all fronts,’’ as it boasts on its Web site.

I realize the high number of tragedies may be an aberration — seven of the fatalities have officially been ruled suicides. Yet far too many people have been killed on Caltrain’s tracks in recent years for the agency to pat itself on the back for finally launching a much-needed public service campaign to educate families and children about the obvious threat posed by high-speed trains near schools and residential areas.

Caltrain board member Jerry Hill told The Examiner this week that Caltrain recognizes it’s part of the problem — but the same thing could have been said in 1995 or 2000, when the number of fatalities also spiked.

Agency officials say they have "redoubled’’ rail-safety efforts since May, starting a campaign call "Don’t Shortcut Life,’’ claiming to have made presentations to more than 5,000 people in the community. Representatives from the agency also have met with school officials near its rail lines, and even offered safety tips in school newspapers.

Yet if it somehow has another year like 2006, public pressure is going to quickly ramp up to public outcry.

There will always be voluminous debate whenever fatalities rise — in San Francisco, you can’t stop public officials from reacting every time a pedestrian is killed, even when it’s their fault. But with increased ridership comes a greater need for public awareness and education, and Caltrain officials are currently aglow about their 35,000 weekday ridership average.

Jonah Weinberg, Caltrain’s spokesman, told me the agency is doing everything possible to make people aware of the dangers posed by trains. The high number of fatalities in 2006 was largely a fluke, he said.

"It’s a strange factor that you can’t narrow down to a single variable,’’ he said. "You can’t factor in people using the railway to take their own life or those that ignore a lowered railroad crossing arm. We have suicide hot line numbers posted at least every 600 feet.’’

But still there are gaps in the system and it’s not enough to remind people that it’s illegal to cross the tracks in unmarked areas.

"We’re going to be putting in fencing in areas that might dissuadepeople from crossing,’’ Weinberg said. "But there are almost 80 crossings in the 47 miles of tracks and people still decide to take shortcuts. We’re just trying to eliminate as many potential shortcuts as possible. We’re trying to make it more difficult for people to take unnecessary risks.’’

That’s an encouraging sign, and there have been others. Last year, Caltrain became one of the nation’s first rail agencies to expand its safety messages to include the issue of suicide, the leading cause of train-related deaths. It also got some of its staff members to get involved with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and helped raise thousands of dollars for the cause.

Yet, in an area renowned for its technology, Caltrain needs to consider more advanced warning systems or other engineering solutions to make the rails more safe and secure. The agency budgeted $1.5 million to install fencing along the tracks last year and hopes to fund the same amount for fencing this year — although Weinberg said there is no guarantee the funding will be in the budget.

Of course, there’s no solution for stupid human behavior. In just two months, transit police issued nearly 300 citations to trespassers who crossed when the signal arms were lowered. And I doubt there’s a corner store or fast-food outlet that is worth the risk.

If anyone needs the warnings from 2006 to remind them, trains cannot stop on a dime. And that’s been true along the tracks of the Peninsula for 143 years now.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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