Caltrain Has Some Major Explaining To Do; So Does Local Media

What would the reaction be if, in a major metropolitan area, a local commuter train nearly ran over passengers detraining at a station it was not supposed to be passing through? We think it would be a major news story that would send out broadcast reporters to the scene and news writers to type furiously for the next print or online edition. Well my friends what happened at Caltrain’s South San Francisco station will surprise you.

Here is what happened. On 24 Aug northbound train 221 was at the South San Francisco station at 8:25 a.m. Northbound passengers have to cross the tracks to the parking lot and there are no crossing gates. Because another train in the southbound track would be unsafe (and impossible to get to the parking lot while there), the general practice is to allow only one train in the station. Trains either slow down between Bayshore or San Bruno or stop near the station to allow the other train to leave.

That is not what happened. A southbound express traveling at 76 mph suddenly came into view. Offloading passengers suddenly had to move quickly and that engineer put on the  emergency brakes. As everyone knows by now, these trains do not stop on a dime. Fortunately no one was hurt except the nerves of everyone who saw what happened. Both trains were stopped while reports were taken which meant north and south bound train service was disrupted for a while.

A mention of the incident appears on the Caltrain Facebook page by Nathan Benedict that day which says “A very dangerous and potentially deadly incident occurred this morning at the South San Francisco Caltrain station with the passengers of the #221 train. I was one of those passengers. Kindly look into that matter please. Thank you.” There also were a lot of messages tweeted about it. Yet nothing was reported by any local broadcast or print media that I could find until the 14 Sept 2012 article in the San Jose Mercury News titled “Terrified Caltrain Passengers Forced To Jump Out  Of Way Of Train.”’

According to the article Caltrain disclosed the incident at a recent board meeting and  justified not disclosing it publicly since no fatalities or disruptions occurred. It is an interesting line to take and is, to be accurate, correct. There were no fatalities. There was, however, a serious breach that endangered lives and would normally warrant lots of public concern. Caltrain deliberately choose to keep it quiet because it would raise serious concerns. More disturbing is that the northbound train operator tested positive for marijuana. Both conductors are on paid leave facing an investigation that will result in a fine or dismissal. Caltrain says it is conducting an internal investigation but that really ought to be done by someone independent to avoid any allegation of bias.

So where was KTVU/KRON/KPIX/KNTV, San Francisco Chronicle, Examiner,San Mateo Daily Journal, San Mateo Times on this story? They were not anywhere to be found except after the fact when Caltrain disclosed the information and the Mercury News reported on it. The local media is all over BART when something happens or when S.F. Muni is not having a great day. One possible reason is that Caltrain does not report its problems right away unless it is a major incident (like hitting a car or worse, someone killed on the tracks). Yet that does not seem to be right here. Plenty of people saw what happened and blogged or tweeted about it. Could it be our local media just was asleep at the switch and no one paid attention?

That is certainly possible but one suspects Caltrain talked it down if there were any inquiries. After all no one was killed or injured and the investigation is ongoing. I could see that working for some but not all. The blackout, if there was one, was just too large. The fact that most of the initial reporting was on Facebook and Tweets was a major reason for it escaping attention. Probably few reporters check Caltrain’s Facebook page or Tweets about it and Caltrain choose to say nothing about it publicly till September. Caltrain has an elitist attitude at times and it shows here. They are public agency accountable to both its paying passengers and to the general public whose money they get. It is shocking they choose to keep this quiet and shame on the local media for not being more attentive. Had the media found out this story back in August, Caltrain would have had to admit that a serious incident occurred that endangered lives.

Some will argue they kept it quiet to avoid causing problems in getting money for projects. That certainly has a ring of truth to it and possibly a reason here. I think it was simply to avoid bad publicity and that two veteran engineers could have screwed up (one having tested positive for marijuana). We do not know exactly how and why that southbound train ended up going through the station. Was it miscommunication from the northbound engineer? Did the train signaling system not work properly? Did the southbound engineer fail to see the signal or hear an important message? Was there a problem in the communication system? Lots of questions. Shame I am asking rather than Matier & Ross.