Editorial: Caltrain solution: Fencing off tracks

Suppose for a moment that you live on one side of the Caltrain tracks that run from San Jose to San Francisco, but many of the places you regularly go are on the other side. Perhaps you need to cross the tracks to reach your favorite stores, your school or bus stop, your friends’ homes.

The nearest marked pedestrian crossing is likely to be three or more blocks away. And even there, the only thing preventing you from entering the tracks while a train is coming is a lowered crossing arm meant primarily as a vehicle barrier.

Many people choose not to walk six blocks out of their way to the “official” crossing, including moms lugging shopping bags or students toting crammed backpacks. Instead, if they can access the Caltrain tracks directly opposite their destination, they hustle across after glancing in both directions. Countless Peninsula residents do this every day.

Fatih Kuc, 13, got killed at 2:40 p.m. on April 18. He and five friends from Burlingame Intermediate School got off the bus and started east across the tracks, just like every school day. A boy told Kuc a joke and he turned around to smile as the southbound train barreled down on them. The kids were pulling each other out of the way, but nobody could reach Kuc in time.

He was the third fatality on the Caltrain tracks in less than two weeks, the seventh death of the year. Year after year, people keep dying on those tracks — no less than 73 since 2000. And year after year, Caltrain continues reacting to the carnage as if the deaths were simply a regrettable but unavoidable byproduct of mass transit.

Railroad officials’ standard response has generally been that these tragedies would not occur if people stopped committing suicide on the tracks, or if they just obeyed the signs warning them to keep off.

The Caltrain combination of increasingly faster trains, openaccess to large sections of track and a steadily growing population near the tracks is a surefire recipe for the deaths to continue. Only two weeks ago we published an editorial about the two April 6 deaths, and now it is already necessary to underscore the demand for a remedy.

It has become clear that a funding package is needed to fence off the entire route, except for vehicle crossings with enhanced safety measures, and to construct simple walkway overpasses every two blocks. It goes without saying that the Peninsula would never let a ground-level express railway be built today. It would have to be like BART, either entirely underground or on raised bridges.

And yet every day trains speed through our communities, with barely any barriers to keep people out. It’s time to stop treating the fatalities like unfortunate accidents and start looking for real solutions.

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