Near-catastrophic collision at old Menlo Park railroad crossing raises concerns about design

A near-catastrophic collision between a Caltrain locomotive and a car on the Peninsula is raising new questions about the design of an old railroad crossing. There was damage strewn on the tracks and death narrowly avoided Tuesday evening. 

The intersection -- designed in the 1800s -- struggles with the realities of 21st century Peninsula life
“So what you have is an area that used to be the real part of downtown Menlo park and over time has changed,” said Herald Schapelhouman, Chief of the Menlo Park Fire District.

Fire officials say after a female driver didn’t account for the rush-hour traffic backlog on Ravenswood Avenue, and stopped with tail-end of her Honda sticking out over the Caltrain tracks. 

Moments later, a southbound express train traveling 80 miles per hour clipped the car, shearing off the rear, and sending the rest of the vehicle spinning.

Schapelhouman said it’s not first time they’ve responded to the area, noting there’s been a variety of near miss or fatal incidents. 

Three years ago, a woman was killed at this same rail crossing when her vehicle was struck by a train. Rail officials say this crossing does not have more collisions than others along the 70-plus miles of track that run the length of the Peninsula. But Tuesday evening’s accident raises new safety concerns.

“Usually what we’ve found is that a lot of times, people are not either familiar with the area. They’re trying to beat the gate. Or sometimes it has been a situation where GPS has directed them onto the tracks,” said Caltrain spokeswoman Tasha Bartholomew.

Several ideas are being considered to try to alleviate congestion and keep motorists safe, including adding another turn lane and removing the crosswalk. But the idea that’s garnered the most traction is grade separation, where they would actually tunnel out beneath the tracks so the tracks go above and the roadway goes below.

“It does reduce incidents, meaning a collision with a car or a collision with a person,” said Bartholomew.
The Menlo Park city council has appropriated $31,000 for the project. Caltrain and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission would also contribute to the construction costs, but there’s still months of study to be done before construction could begin. 

Although Tuesday’s victim survived with back and neck discomfort, Chief Shapelhouman worries in an area adding more housing and more congestion, another fatality could be just a matter of time.

“Adding more train, which is good for commuters, adding high speed rail, that’s only going to exacerbate the problem in terms of the cross ability and the danger at this particular intersection,” said Shapelhouman.