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Reversing the dangerous trend of train-auto collisions on Caltrain

written by andy on

Recently there’s a dangerous trend where car drivers intrude onto the rail right of way. In many cases, the car simply got stuck on the track and trains were held while waiting for the tow truck to remove the vehicle. In other cases, the train hit the unoccupied vehicle. Either way, trains were delayed and rides got frustrated.

(Photo by Manborag via KRON4)

Below are the known incidents that involved vehicles entering the rail right of way in the past 8 years. This is a partial list since there are other non-collision intrusion events that are not reported in the news or through Twitter.

Certain patterns have emerged with these incidents:

  • Most of them do not result in injuries or deaths because the vehicle occupants were able to escape before the collision.
  • Most of them occurred during night or early morning hours when visibility is limited, which is especially problematic during winter months as daylights are much shorter than during summer months.
  • They occur at crossings immediately adjacent to street intersections, where distance is at most a few cars’ length.
  • Many of them turned right and entered the right of way when they tried to follow the GPS direction (that they should turn right after crossing the tracks) and were otherwise not familiar with the area (being from out of town).
  • Most frequently occurred at Broadway in Burlingame, and at Meadow and Charleston in south Palo Alto.

It is imperative for Caltrain to cut down the number of these collisions, as they are all preventable. These events not only cause serious service disruptions to train riders and others on the roads, they may result in fire (which occurred in the two February 2018 incidents).

GPS has been cited as the reason in many cases for mistakenly entering the rail right of way. In recent years, people have been increasing rely on GPS for directions with the availability of smartphones, aftermarket GPS devices, and built-in GPS in late model cars.

While GPS is very helpful in guiding people, it is not perfect. The information may not be always up to date, and GPS reliance can become a distraction as people are trying to look down on their devices rather than looking up on the windshield for danger.

I have done an experiment with a GPS on my phone for a trip that requires a right turn after crossing the track. The voice direction told me to turn right as I approach the rail crossing, rather than after. If it is dark and I am not familiar with the area, I could’ve turned right onto the track since the rail crossing looks a lot like an intersection, especially in the dark. The voice direction didn’t warn me that I would be crossing the tracks.

To address the issue, there should be multiple strategies to discourage people from 1) making a wrong turn, 2) a way for people who made the mistake to warn train dispatchers, and 3) a faster way to recover from mistakes. Even if the train dispatcher is warned about the entry and stopped the trains, it could take a while to call a tow truck and remove the vehicle. The goal should be zero collision.

A strategy should be to improve the GPS software to warn about the rail crossings. A voice saying “turn right at XXX” vs “turn right at XXX after crossing the train tracks” makes a big difference. This alone does not require action on Caltrain’s part, but it is not perfect since there are many GPS software/device vendors and that GPS systems may not always get updated especially for aftermarket and built in devices.

Second strategy is to improve the signage. While all rail crossings have gates and crossbucks, the gates are normally not lit and the crossbucks are generally placed higher than normal traffic signs. So if the train isn’t coming, it is easy to miss it in the dark, which is when most intrusions happen.

I believe that there should be supplementary signs to warn about train crossing and the fact that the street intersection is past the train crossing where they should make the right turn. The signs should be placed on the right where you want the right turning drivers to see whether they’re relying on their GPS or not.


Speed bumps should be placed at all similar crossings. Due to incidences several years ago, Caltrain has installed speed bumps at the 16th Street crossing in San Francisco. However due to clearance issue the speed bumps will leave gaps.

Assuming that the crossing sign and speed bumps couldn’t prevent someone from turning right onto the tracks, there should be additional strategies to prevent collisions. The first should be additional warning signs telling that they’re on track, in danger, and that they need to call 911 or train dispatch right away. While there are signs with phone number to train dispatch at each signal house, it is clearly not enough. Caltrain currently does not operate very frequency at night when most of these incidents occur. It seems very likely that people who drove onto the right of way did not respond the way they should (like calling dispatch to stop or slow train and request for tow truck) when they had the opportunity to do so. Instead they were probably panicked, or attempt to move the vehicle over the ballast (which would be unproductive), and set themselves up for collision.


Signs above should be installed inside the right of way to be seen by people who drove onto the track.

Another layer of safety is to install surveillance cameras at the crossings, and possibly intrusion detection system. These systems would allow the police and train dispatchers to make much quicker decisions through video monitoring and prevent collisions. Through the PTC project, Caltrain has installed optic fiber lines on the corridor, which can facilitate the installation of cameras. If the current technology allows cameras to be installed in homes and every transit buses, it is no brainer to install cameras at the rail crossings, especially the high risk ones in Burlingame and south Palo Alto.

Lastly, another strategy that deserve consideration is to extend the pavement over the tracks beyond the traffic lanes for about a car length to allow drivers who made a mistake to safely recover without a tow truck. According to the news stories, some people have attempted to move the vehicle over the ballast, which is difficult because they got bottomed out on the rails. On the other hand, this is a much more costly to implement compared to installing signs and speed bumps.


Above is a photo simulation of the current design and suggested improvements at the Charleston crossing.

While new technologies allow us to do many things that weren’t possible before, it often also change us in how we do things in response. It also means that new problems will emerge. For example, before the days of smartphones, cyberbullying and distracted driving weren’t much of an issue (in fact the first mobile phone models in the 80s were designed for cars). The GPS problem is one of these and needs to be addressed hopefully from the app level as well as at ground level with better signage and grade crossing designs.

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