Caltrain video cameras to help with crash, death investigations
- Published Thursday, May 1, 2008, by the Redwood City Daily News
Caltrain seeks funding for cameras
Video would help determine how and why people die on tracks
By Will Oremus and Ken McLaughlin
Daily News Staff Writer and Bay Area News Group
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 Caltrain 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 won'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
Caltrain has been trying for years to staunch 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 hopped around between roughly five and 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
"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
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 being
installed in the late '90s. So when the agency recently opened its
22-mile light-rail line between Oceanside and Escondido, it made
sure the trolley cars 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, its tracks are mostly exposed and at street-level,
making it easy for people to place themselves in a locomotive'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
Capitol Corridor also sees the cameras as a way to collect data on
how accidents 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
"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 spokeswoman 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 their 38 other
In a typical tragedy, there will be several eyewitnesses with
different stories, Tyrrell said. "And all will be adamant that their
version is the truth," she added.
"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 last August on the Caltrain tracks helps illustrate that
point. A middle-aged 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, "video evidence
would be an important tool in the investigation."
Year -- Total deaths -- Suicides
2004 -- 9 -- 7
2005 -- 10 -- 7
2006 -- 17 -- 9
2007 -- 8 -- 6
2008 -- 6 -- N/A (Some still under investigation)
E-mail Will Oremus at woremus@...