Jul 10, 2023 - Transit

Caltrain records two fatalities in 11 hours

Photo of a Caltrain sign that says "Mountain View Station"

One of last week's Caltrain deaths happened around 1:30am in Mountain View. Photo: Smith Collection/Gado via Getty Images

The deaths of two pedestrians last week marked Caltrain's third and fourth fatalities this year.

Driving the news: Though the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner-Coroner's Office has not released the final cause of death, the incidents reflect the commuter rail's decades-long struggle to address and prevent casualties.

  • The deaths took place within the span of about 11 hours. The first occurred around 1:30am last Thursday when a southbound train struck a pedestrian in Mountain View.
  • The second happened around 12:10pm when a southbound train struck someone in Palo Alto.

State of play: Caltrain has been marred by controversy over fatalities since its early years of operations. About two-thirds of the 200 Caltrain deaths between 1992 and 2009 were classified as suicides, according to a 2010 report from the Mineta Transportation Institute.

  • The suicides occurred most frequently when more trains were in operation and in areas of high population density.

Zoom in: The rail line spans more than 75 miles from San Francisco to Gilroy, but 83% of suicides took place within the 25-mile route between Burlingame and Sunnyvale, the report found.

  • Researchers also noted an uptick in total Caltrain deaths per year over time, a trend that has continued through several recent suicide clusters in the Bay.
  • In recent years, Caltrain has recorded an average of about 12 deaths per year; it saw 14 in 2022.

What to watch: Caltrain spokesperson Dan Lieberman told Axios that a major solution is grade separation, or the construction of an underpass or overpass that separates a railway from a roadway.

  • "These tracks were first laid in 1863, and many cities on the Peninsula were literally built along the rail line, without much regard for public safety," Lieberman said.
  • "The best way to prevent fatalities is to prevent people from accessing our tracks, and the best way to do that is to build grade separations, separating the rails from roads, which is something we continue to work on along our corridor in different cities."

The big picture: Casualties from trespassing on tracks, which includes suicides, are considered the leading cause of rail-related deaths in the U.S.

Between the lines: While suicide-prevention efforts need to be community-oriented, rail companies also have a responsibility to minimize harm, experts have said.

Of note: Since a series of rail-related suicides in 2009, Caltrain has also partnered with local suicide-prevention agencies, worked with nonprofit mental health service Crisis Text Line to install signage throughout the tracks, and sponsored community mental health initiatives.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988. (En EspaƱol: 1-888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: 711, then 988.)

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