Articles

Palo Alto, Calif., Proposes Auto-Alert Cameras for Caltrain Tracks

Cameras with the capability to autonomously alert authorities when a person is on the tracks could be installed in the coming months.

by Jason Green, Palo Alto Daily News / April 6, 2015

(TNS) -- As Palo Alto and Caltrain work to contain a teen suicide cluster, a new idea has surfaced that may help prevent additional deaths on the four miles of train track that cut through the city.

Cameras with the capability to autonomously alert authorities when a person is on the tracks could be installed in the coming months. Ken Dueker, director of the city's Office of Emergency Services, said similar systems are already used in airports and other areas where public safety is a concern.

"This is technology that, as far as we know, hasn't been utilized on a non-subway rail setting," Dueker said in a telephone interview this week. "It's typical Silicon Valley. We're trying to be innovative. We're trying to solve a problem that really is very difficult to solve."

The idea was broached at a March 6 meeting called by the city and Caltrain to discuss four suicides on the tracks between October and March. A pilot program proposed by the city would place cameras at the Meadow Drive crossing; they would cover one mile north and south.

Tasha Bartholomew, a spokeswoman for Caltrain, said the transit agency is "open to all suggestions" to improve safety on the tracks. But she noted that the technology is experimental.

"While we support this type of technology in concept, we still need more information and are open to exploring everything we can to make our tracks safer," Bartholomew wrote in an email to The Daily News.

The city and transit agency are scheduled to hold another meeting next week to discuss the idea further. Dueker said he believes the city could get the pilot program up and running in a matter of months.

If they work, cameras wouldn't necessarily replace guards who began patrolling the tracks in 2009 following a teen suicide cluster, Dueker said. He noted that the guards are expected to report problems to public safety officials, not pull people off the tracks. Over the years, they have helped prevent a handful of suicides, though Dueker could not recall how many.

"Humans have limitations. We can only see so far. We can only use our senses so much," Dueker said.

"Our thinking is if the camera sees farther and it notifies us more quickly because it sees farther and it's automated, then the only people who are able to physically grab somebody have a better chance of getting there in time," he continued. "That's really the crux of the value proposition."

The cameras could increase safety in other ways, Dueker said. For instance, they might alert authorities to a fallen tree or a vehicle on the tracks.

In addition to cameras, the city has proposed upgrading fencing and cutting back vegetation to make it easier for the guards to see up and down the tracks, according to a March 16 letter City Manager James Keene sent to Mark Simon, Caltrain's executive director of public affairs.

"As costs associated with these measures are identified, we ask that the city and Caltrain discuss appropriate funding sources and implementation timeframes," Keene wrote. "We know that you share our concern in addressing the need to put in place safety measures that will deter as much as possible any further tragedies."

©2015 the Palo Alto Daily News (Menlo Park, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC