Video cameras mounted on the fronts of locomotives could be installed by Caltrain in August, pending a clarification of how the recordings would be saved or retained, the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board voted on Thursday (July 7).
Caltrain has planned for several years to mount the cameras on the front of the trains, which function like an aircraft's "black box," as a way to monitor illegal or suspicious activities on its right-of-ways, spokeswoman Christine Dunn said. Caltrain has been seeking ways to keep people from trespassing on its right of way, vandalizing stored trains or potentially sabotaging the tracks through acts of terrorism, she said.
The rail agency applied for a California Transit Security Grant in 2008 to purchase and install the cameras, she said. The grant program is part of Proposition 1B, approved by voters in 2006. Proposition 1B includes $1.5 billion to increase protection against a security threat on transit systems. It also includes grants to improve the safety of rail crossings and other transportation modes.
A Caltrain safety and security report disclosed that there have been 181 police contacts with individuals or removals of people from trains, stations and the right-of-way to date, down from 213 in 2010 during the same period. Infraction citations, including for trespassing, are 205 to date for 2011, down from 244 in 2010. Caltrain stopped eight potential suicide attempts since January 2011 and nine attempts in 2010.
The forward-facing digital cameras would also record incidents that take place in front of the train, including accidents and suicides, and help review railroad signal colors up to 2,000 feet away and the condition of grade crossings in all weather conditions, according to a staff report.
The cameras would be installed on as many as 20 locomotives and cab cars, with the options of adding cameras to an additional 45 trains and purchasing five extra cameras, she said. The installation is scheduled to begin in August and would be completed by the end of the year.
The total cost of the project is $1.5 million and is entirely paid for by the grant, she added.
The contract would be awarded to Railhead Corporation of Alsip, Ill., which was chosen from three bidders, according to the staff report.
Board members voted unanimously to allow Executive Director Michael Scanlon to execute the contract at his discretion, pending a clarification of just how long the videos would be retained.
"This will give counsel more time to research how videos of the right of way and other Caltrain property might impact our overall security. By way of example, Caltrain does not release maps of the right of way for security reasons. We would not want to release video of the right of way for the same reason," Dunn said.
Some residents told board members that a recent news article claimed that sensitive videos of accidents and suicides could end up on the Internet. But Mark Simon, Caltrain executive officer of public affairs, called the story "speculative."
Scanlon said questions had recently emerged regarding whether the videos could be accessible through the California Public Records Act. He said he wanted legal counsel to review the statutes.
But he added he had been told the cameras, which record continuously, would record over previous material in a loop, except in the case of accidents, when the footage would be retained.
Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, an open-government advocacy group in Carmichael, Calif., said the legality of whether tapes made by a transportation agency could be exempt from the Public Records Act has never been fully explored.
Any video or audio recordings that are used in a criminal investigation by law enforcement are exempt, he said.
"But it's not clear that the same principal would apply to a transportation agency if they are using the videos for a whole array of purposes," he said.
An act of sabotage would be a criminal act that could preclude public access to the evidence during an investigation, he said.
Whether attempted suicides would be considered criminal acts is something he said he could not answer. (No penal code violation was found by the Weekly in a California codes search.) Suicides can't very well be prosecuted, he noted.
"There's no real exemption from the Public Records Act that focuses on distaste about what people might do with the images," he said.
"This business about grizzly images floating up on the Internet surprises me. I would have thought anything like that would be under and behind the train and wouldn't be caught on a camera in front of the train," he said. But he noted the videos would capture images of anyone sitting or standing on the tracks.
Recordings that are used in investigations could become public if they are introduced as evidence in a trial, he said.
Caltrain is also installing a closed-circuit television system at its centralized equipment maintenance and operations facilities in San Jose, which include the train yard, storage areas, parking lot and entrances, according to a security report.
The Joint Powers Board also unanimously approved an extension of the current contract with the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office, which has 13 personnel who patrol Caltrain and investigate crimes and accidents.
Among seven "significant events" that the Sheriff's Office personnel handled during May: Transit police prevented a woman from jumping in front of a train at the San Jose Diridon station; caught two men stealing bicycles at the Palo Alto University Avenue station; arrested a man at the Atherton station who threatened a conductor on a train and was in possession of two steak knives; responded to the Palo Alto station regarding a man who was jumping onto the side of a moving train and then jumping off (it was determined he had engaged in horseplay and he was cited for the offense); responded to a vehicle-train accident at Millbrae (there were no injuries); and broke up a fight between two men in San Mateo, according to the safety report.