Friday, May 02, 2008

Caltrain wants cameras, seeks to reduce deaths

Caltrain has invested millions of dollars in fences, educational videos, ad campaigns and even suicide-prevention walks to stop people from being killed on its tracks.

Nothing seems to work.

Now the commuter rail line is turning to the latest in video technology - cameras mounted on the front and back of trains - to learn how and why people die on the tracks.

Caltrain's board of directors today is expected to ask the state for a half-million dollars in homeland security funds to install the cameras on all 30 trains on the San Francisco-to-Gilroy line.

The cameras would record suicides - which represent more than half of the fatalities each year - and other deaths in the same way police cameras record arrests for drunken driving. The 24-hour cameras would have the added benefit of recording the movements of anyone tampering with the trains or the tracks.

The digital set of eyes on the front of a speeding Caltrain wouldn't directly prevent collisions with pedestrians any more than an engineer's human eyes. But they would document how the deaths occur in a way the railroad has never seen before.

That information could aid death investigations, identify trespassers and even pinpoint weak links in Caltrain's network of fences. And transit officials hope that the mere presence of cameras will cut down on pedestrians and drivers trying to sneak around the crossing gates.

Caltrain has been trying for years to stanch the bloodshed on its tracks, without much success. This year, six people have been killed. Three are confirmed suicides.

Caltrain's deadliest year was 1995, when 20 people died. Since then, the figure has varied from five to 18.

"There is no pattern," Caltrain spokeswoman Christine Dunn said. "There is no trend."

The camera trend, however, is quickly building steam.

Amtrak's Capitol Corridor, which connects San Jose to Sacramento, got $600,000 earlier this week for a similar system. The money comes from a $20 billion transportation bond package that California voters approved as Proposition 1B in 2006. Caltrain's funding request is expected to be approved and the cameras installed next year.

Jay Alan, spokesman for the state homeland security office, said the front-mounted cameras are part of several agencies' wish lists across California.

"It's a technology that has been improving," he said. "I think it's something that a lot of intercity and Amtrak-related trains have been moving toward in other parts of the country as well as in California."

Tom Kelleher, a spokesman for North County Transit District in San Diego County, said cameras pointed inside and outside its buses have proved popular with riders concerned with safety since they were installed in the late '90s. When the agency recently opened its 22-mile light-rail line between Oceanside and Escondido, it made sure the trains also had them.

Some rail lines, including BART, have long had cameras inside their cars to monitor activity and solve crimes. But Caltrain, which does not have such interior cameras, is most concerned with what's happening outside the trains, Dunn said.

Unlike BART, Caltrain's tracks are mostly exposed and at street level, making it easy for people to place themselves in a train's path.

The frustration with the problem is evident.

"Anything we can do to reduce the number of idiots from running in front of the train or driving around the gates, we are going to do," said Arthur Lloyd, a retired Amtrak executive who sits on Caltrain's board.

Capitol Corridor officials also see the cameras as a way to collect data on how collisions happen, spokeswoman Luna Salaver said.

"If it's a situation where perhaps someone is listening to their iPod or they're on a PDA, the camera would catch that," she said. "Then we would know what we needed to work on as far as public education."

Beyond that, Salaver added, the cameras could help quickly resolve some of the toughest questions that arise in the wake of a pedestrian fatality.

"Often the first questions reporters ask are: Was it intentional? Was the person trying to beat the train, or not paying attention? Or was it suicide?

"Now," she said, "we'll be able to reconstruct that situation."

Denise Tyrrell, a spokesman for Metrolink in Southern California, said most new locomotives are coming off the assembly line with cameras as a standard option. The agency just got its first such locomotive this week, she said. The transit agencies plan to use $380,000 in Proposition 1B money to install cameras on its 38 other locomotives.

In a typical tragedy, there will be several eyewitnesses with different stories, she said. "And all will be adamant that their version is the truth," she said.

"Now everyone involved in an accident can be reassured exactly what happened," she said.

The cameras will not only help the agency fend off frivolous lawsuits but help bring closure to family members as well, she said.

A death in August on the Caltrain tracks helps illustrate that point. A San Mateo man named Chuck Fox had reportedly been drinking with friends near the Hayward Park station in that city when he got up and placed himself in a train's path.

After he was killed, signs pointed to suicide, but at least one of his close friends insisted it was an accident.

"I'm sure that in a situation like that," Dunn said, "the video evidence would be an important tool in the investigation."

Contact Ken McLaughlin at or (408) 920-5552