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New safety upgrades underway for Caltrain

July 8, 2010 1:18:29 AM PDT
Work crews are starting to do upgrades to eight rail crossings in northern Santa Clara County overnight to improve pedestrian and vehicle safety. The $5.8 million project is being funded by a voter-approved half-cent sales tax approved in 2000. There is disappointment, though, in Palo Alto where transit officials acknowledge the improvements will not address the on-going problem with suicides along the tracks.

Caltrain spokeswoman Christine Dunn confirmed there have been six fatalities along its right-of-way this year, although she could not say how many were believed to be suicides.

The work to be done over the next few nights involve upgrades to crossing arms that block vehicles and pedestrians from reaching the tracks, along with other improvements. The crossings are located in the cities of Sunnyvale, Mountain View and Palo Alto.

"It will be those ones where drivers are distracted or pedestrians are distracted and not paying attention to those traditional warning signs, which are just a guardrail that comes down," says Brandi Childress, the Valley Transportation Authority public information officer.

The work is being done by the VTA, which handles facility upgrades in Santa Clara County on behalf of Caltrain. Caltrain recently completed similar work at eight crossings in San Mateo County, including crossings at Second through Fifth Avenues in downtown San Mateo.

The new crossing signals are louder and for the first time, arms block pedestrians physically.

Marielena Mendoza is disappointed that none of the money is being used to help discourage suicides in the vicinity of the Caltrain tracks at East Meadow Drive. She and a core group of 10 others continue to volunteer as monitors at that crossing as a result of a number of deaths of students there. The volunteers are there each night from dusk until 1 a.m.

Mendoza says she would like brush cleared and lights installed to improve their ability to spot anyone who may be considering suicide. Caltrain's Christine Dunn said it is working with suicide prevention groups in both counties to address the issue.

"I'm kind of disappointed because I feel like more things should have been done already. Like we have asked for lights. You see along the tracks, it gets really dark at night. Right now I can see if someone jumps the fence, but if it's at night, I really can't see anything," says Mendoza.

Caltrain and the VTA, which is doing the work in Santa Clara County, both acknowledge the new crossing work won't address the suicide issue.

"It solves no problem, but it's a good expense that we paid to protect ourselves from ourselves," says San Mateo businessman Luther Izmirian. He doesn't think it will save any lives.

Caltrain says it continues to work with suicide prevention agencies. It is also reviewing where it has placed warning signs along the tracks.


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