On Aug. 21, a 13-year-old girl stepped onto the Caltrain tracks near the East Meadows Drive crossing in Palo Alto and waited.
At 10:45 p.m., she was fatally struck by an oncoming train, becoming the third teenager to commit suicide this year at that crossing.
It was an act that refocused attention on the challenges Caltrain faces in keeping despondent individuals from willfully taking their lives on the tracks.
Since 2004, there have been 72 deaths on Caltrain tracks. At least 46 have been deemed suicides, according to Caltrain spokeswoman Christine Dunn.
Unlike other Bay Area transit agencies like BART and Muni, Caltrain has miles and miles of street-level tracks that are accessible to people.
In 2008, 12 of the 16 deaths on the tracks were suicides. This year, 12 people have died; four have been ruled suicides and the cause is still pending on seven others, according to Caltrain.
“This is definitely a concern in the community,” said Jack Matthews, a councilman in San Mateo, where an elderly man died this year after walking onto the tracks. “And the awful part about it all is that these things tend to happen in waves, which is what we’re seeing right now.”
The problem is not new. In May 2006, the transit agency launched a three-prong effort — “Don’t Shortcut Life” — to address suicides. It involved educational programs in schools, stronger law enforcement action along railways and more safety features to reduce access to tracks.
About 35,000 linear feet of new fencing has been installed along rail corridors in the past two years at a cost of $2.2 million, according to Dunn.
Eventually, the transit agency would like to have fencing run along one entire side of tracks, which are 55-miles long, but budget restraints — Caltrain had a $2.6 million shortfall entering this fiscal year — prevent the work from being done quickly, Dunn said. San Francisco, Redwood City and Atherton are among communities that have had the fencing installed. Additional barriers will be added as funds become available, she said.
Caltrain also has earmarked $17.2 million to improve safety at 25 street-level crossings in San Mateo County, according to the agency.
The upgrades include pedestrian gates, fencing, more visible signage and the addition of roadway medians. So far, 10 have been completed — all in locations in San Mateo.
The remaining 15 locations — in Menlo Park, Atherton, Redwood City and Burlingame — are scheduled to be finished by
Oct. 20, Dunn said.
Caltrain is also utilizing an exclusive group of 15 sheriff’s deputies that act as the transit agency’s full-time police force. Their efforts began in 2006, and 15 possible suicide attempts have been averted this year, Dunn said. The deputies also have identified areas where trespassing is an issue — such as the East Meadows Drive crossing — and boosted enforcement by instilling a zero-tolerance policy for people straying from sanctioned waiting areas.
Since 2006, more than 1,700 citations have been issued, more than 5,500 trespassings and interventions have taken place, and more than 40 arrests have been made under a law that allows police officers or deputies to arrest someone if they are acting in a way that poses a danger to others or themselves, according to information presented to Caltrain board members at their July 2 meeting.
The oversight board was also updated on ways the transit agency was trying to get the word out about rail safety, through a program called Operation Lifesaver.
More than 12,000 K-12 students have been given a presentation that includes the message that a train weighs more than
1 million pounds and travels at speeds of up to 79 mph, according to a Caltrain public affairs official.
Yet despite the efforts, Caltrain officials say the root of the problem is not at the railway.
“We are experts at operating a railroad,” Dunn said. “We’re not mental health experts.”
In the wake of the suicide deaths of three Palo Alto teenagers — each occurring separately since May — at least three different groups have been formed, or are in the midst of forming, to tackle mental health problems on the Peninsula.
Dunn said Caltrain has been working with all the groups.
“This is obviously something that needs to be addressed by the entire community,” she said. “We’re going to continue to keep an open dialogue and be receptive to whatever suggestions may be offered to us.”
New groups aim to stop suicides in their tracks
In addition to prevention measures along Caltrain tracks, three recently formed groups of mental health professionals on the Peninsula are exploring ways to keep suicide from being the top option.
One of the groups was formed at the behest of a Santa Clara County supervisor after a string of teen suicides on Caltrain tracks in Palo Alto. The city has also formed an advisory group, and there’s one working through the Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford University.
“Our coalition formed after the second teen suicide on Caltrain this spring,” said Dr. Shashank Joshi, a member of the Stanford University committee. “One of our main goals is to increase awareness about the problem of teen depression in this community. Hopefully we can get everyone involved to help curb this problem.”
Supervisor Liz Kniss was the advocate for the Santa Clara group, which she said will also tackle countywide mental health issues and try to cut the number of suicide deaths in half.
“I don’t think there is any question that the recent teen suicides on Caltrain proved an impetus for this panel’s formation,” Kniss said. “It has become clear we’re not serving our community well enough, and one of the main issues is changing the behavior that draws teenagers to the Caltrain tracks.”
The group — composed of 25 to 30 people from nonprofit associations, teaching professions and mental health organizations — will begin giving frequent updates to the Board of Supervisors health committee next month, including recommendations about improving conditions along Caltrain tracks, Kniss said.
Deaths on train tracks
Two-thirds of deaths on Caltrain tracks in the past five years have been suicides.
Year Deaths Confirmed suicides
2004 9 7
2005 10 8
2006 17 9
2007 8 6
2008 16 12
2009 *12 4
Total 72 46
*Cause of some deaths still pending
Train travel in Bay Area
Caltrain links commuters with the South Bay, San Mateo County and San Francisco.
Top speed of Baby Bullet express trains
Track distance from San Francisco to San Jose
Baby Bullet travel time between San Jose and San Francisco
Daily ridership (2006)
Passengers’ average trip length
Counties trains run through
(San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara)