Cow Catcher 2.0 Proposed for Caltrain

Palo Alto writes letter of support for engineer's proposed train airbag

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Nicki Dugan

Palo Alto engineer Steve Raney was upset over the death of a young family friend while crossing the Caltrain tracks, and after another teenager died in similar circumstances, decided to move forward with an interesting idea.


Not for the passengers, or on pedestrians, but for the front of the diesel trains. Think of it as a cow catcher 2.0.

Caltrain vehicles reach up to 60 miles an hour, and however you calculate the physics, any pedestrian caught in the headlight will lose every time.

However Raney says physicists he's talked to haven't entirely dismissed the idea, and on the strength of that, is applying for a grant from the Transportation Research Board to explore the idea.

A Palo Alto city official offered a supportive letter as part of the application. While a Caltrain spokesperson offered the agency's best wishes, the transit operator has not made any promises to test any prototype system.

But the 500 annual deaths cited by Raney as reason to pursue the project represent only .01 percent of the 38,648 fatal motor vehicle crashes in the same year, as recorded by the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration, with cars killing nearly ten times more pedestrians than trains.

Factor in that 360 of those of train-related pedestrian deaths are suicides, meaning trains are even less likely to fatally injure a pedestrian than a car.

So from a purely utilitarian standpoint, Raney could probably save more teenagers by finding ways to reduce automobile use than by making trains safer.

But every life is precious and unique, so if a few hundred deaths can be avoided, all the better. Unless those with dreams of dramatic suicide just take the Caltrain north to San Francisco and go for a jump off the Golden Gate Bridge instead.

Photo by Nicki Dugan.

Jackson West wonders why a Silicon Valley engineer late to work thanks to a fatal accident didn't think of this first.

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