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Caltrain video cameras to help with crash, death investigations

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  • 5/1 Redwood City Daily
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , May 2, 2008
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      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
      gates.

      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
      the state.

      "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 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
      board.

      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
      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 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
      locomotives.

      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."

      CALTRAIN FATALITIES

      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@...
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