Palo Alto to begin monitoring Caltrain tracks through cameras

Newly installed video security system will replace human guards

The city of Palo Alto expects to begin monitoring four Caltrain rail crossings via an integrated video camera system in June under the city's efforts to substitute human guards stationed at the tracks with computer monitors surveilled by operators from a remote site, officials announced in a press release this week.

The city has finished installing the cameras at the Palo Alto Avenue, Churchill Avenue, Meadow Drive and Charleston Avenue rail crossings and is currently finalizing matters with the camera's information technology, according to city spokeswoman Claudia Keith. The City Council agreed to the camera contract with the firm G4S Secure Integration last June.

Next month, off-site operators from G4S will be able to monitor a live video feed from a distant location, make voice announcements in real time and provide direction to people on the tracks, according to the city. Intersections will also be marked with visual signage to notify people that the area is being monitored by cameras.

Each camera is equipped with thermal capability; the ability to pan, tilt and zoom; and the capability of viewing objects up to 1,000 feet down the corridor in variable light and weather conditions, city officials said.

The cameras also include artificial intelligence with the capacity to "detect certain behaviors and create alerts to law enforcement," according to this week's announcement. If the cameras detect activity on the tracks that requires attention, it can trigger an alert to law enforcement for action.

"Because detection through the camera system is superior to humans at the tracks, we anticipate quicker notification," Keith said.

Just as current human guards cannot physically intervene and can only observe and report, the cameras will follow the same protocol for notification of authorities, according to Keith.

As part of its transition from human guards to the integrated video camera system, the city plans to continue stationing guards at designated crossings alongside the new cameras until September, when the cameras will solely monitor the rail corridor, according to the city.

Palo Alto decided to gradually decrease and reduce its budget for track security guards as part of last year's budget, according to the announcement. The Track Watch program, which the city launched in November 2009 following a cluster of teenage suicides at the tracks, costs the city $1.7 million annually. In comparison, the cost of the camera installation is $1.5 million in one-time capital costs and an ongoing annual cost of $325,000 for remote monitoring and maintenance, according to the announcement.

The council approved the switch to cameras after reports from a 2016 pilot program at the Meadow crossing that cameras are more effective at detecting activity than humans.

Throughout the installation process, the city has continued to coordinate with national experts on suicide prevention, according to the announcement. Experts recognize cameras on tracks, additional signage and physical barriers, like grade separation at crossings, as among the most effective deterrents of suicide.

The council plans to take up grade separation and continue to narrow down the list of alternatives at its next regular meeting on Tuesday.


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16 people like this
Posted by Missing Link
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 26, 2018 at 9:09 am

Is there any protocol for quickly notifying Caltrain operators to slow the trains down? If not, I don't see this really reducing the problem.

33 people like this
Posted by Me
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on May 26, 2018 at 9:28 am

The security guards also provide human deterrence. Cameras won't.

14 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on May 26, 2018 at 10:31 am

The cameras have a big advantage of being able to see places that the guards can't. I agree that the guards have a bigger deterrence effect and the best of both worlds would be to keep both. It sounds like cost saving is a big issue for the city. I hope they pour the money they saved into school counseling and local mental health programs, which I believe is an even better deterrence for the money than the guards.

12 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on May 26, 2018 at 2:54 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

This is a great way to record what happened but will provide insufficient warning to allow train operators to stop in time.

I.E. 20/20 hindsight.

3 people like this
Posted by A resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 26, 2018 at 5:27 pm

What happens to California station? No cameras are mentioned for that location.

13 people like this
Posted by Flying Trains
a resident of Midtown
on May 26, 2018 at 6:24 pm

Trains have the right of way under federal law. They can't slow or stop, nor should they, for every trespasser on the tracks, or every person who looks like he might be thinking about getting in front of a train. It takes a lot of time, energy and distance to slow or stop a train and to bring it back up to speed. In addition, a train moving at 5 mph can still inflict a lot of damage. It's unlikely that Caltrain would agree to a scheme to slow their trains down.

[Portion removed.]

Sorry, folks, but that is the cold, hard reality. The moral of the story is to stay off the tracks.

10 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on May 26, 2018 at 6:56 pm

"This is a great way to record what happened but will provide insufficient warning to allow train operators to stop in time."

True, but cameras are technology and human guards are not technology and this is the Silicon Valley so we gotta have cameras because hallowed Valley hype says technology trumps any nontechnology alternative that would actually solve the problem. Full stop.

17 people like this
Posted by Gunn Dad
a resident of Gunn High School
on May 27, 2018 at 10:36 am

Gunn Dad is a registered user.

So the $1.7M/year guard program has always had a policy against physical intervention? That is so Palo Alto -- extravagantly signaling good intentions, rather than trying to actually improve outcomes.

7 people like this
Posted by Dilettante
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 29, 2018 at 10:42 am

Dilettante is a registered user.

Unmentioned is the countless times the human guards have happily waved and smiled at school kids walking/biking over the tracks. Also unmentioned are the countless times human guards have walked over to stupid car drivers stopped ON the tracks and urged them to pay attention and move.

7 people like this
Posted by Louise68
a resident of Menlo Park
on May 29, 2018 at 12:42 pm

Oh, brother - more surveillance. Just what we need - more spying on everyone. The excuse for this is "saving lives," but really all this will do is fatten the already too-fat bank accounts of local high-tech companies. It seems to me that preventing suicides requires humans to know and care deeply about other humans, and to be able to step in and act appropriately when needed. No computer can ever do that, or replace ongoing human love and compassion and strong support.

This area, and the entire country, has been sold a bill of goods by the high tech industry: that high tech is always the best way to solve all problems What a crock!

Like this comment
Posted by PA
a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on May 30, 2018 at 10:11 am

Anyone else happen to notice the INSANE traffic traveling south on Alma/Central Express yesterday at these exact streets?

it was RIDICULOUS. 45 minutes = 5 miles.

Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on May 30, 2018 at 10:19 am

@PA - the police posted on Twitter and Nextdoor on Tuesday about a malfunctioning traffic light being repaired on East Charleston Road. This had nothing to do with the train tracks.

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