A Palo Alto resident thinks the solution to saving lives on the Caltrain tracks and other rail systems may lie in a technology that already protects people every day: air bags.
Steve Raney — who works for Advanced Transportation Systems, a British firm with operations in Berkeley that develops personalized rapid transit systems — has worked up a proposal to put air bags on the front of trains. Though no formal designs exist, the air bags would theoretically cushion someone on the tracks from the train's initial impact and then scoop them up to get them out of harm's way, Raney said.
A Palo Alto city official wrote a letter in support of the proposal last week, saying the city "is in support of any effort to improve pedestrian and vehicle safety along railroad corridors and rights of way."
Raney said he is friends with the mother of one of the four Palo Alto teenagers who died on the tracks this year. After the teen died, Raney started thinking about potential solutions. But he didn't do anything about his idea until another teen died this fall.
"I just felt bad that I hadn't acted on it," Raney said.
Since October, the idea has become a "side project" for Raney. He researched patents for other air-bag designs and contacted physics and transportation experts for their feedback.
He found one patent for an exterior air-bag system for cars. The patent holder says it could allow a driver to survive a car crashing into a wall at 45 mph.
"Let's look at how the auto air bag has evolved and modify that a bit and apply it to rail safety," Raney said.
Raney said his proposal would put a 15-foot-long, 7-foot-tall rectangular air bag on the front of the train. The air bag would act as a cushion when it first strikes the person, and then would form into a firm wedge, scooping up the person as the train brakes to a stop.
"It's a very, very sharp stop, but it's a controlled and fast stop," Raney said.
He has run the idea by two physics-expert acquaintances, who say they believe the physics might be "doable" if the air bag is designed correctly, Raney said.
"I would have dropped it if someone had given me a strongly worded and articulate answer that this isn't going to work," Raney said. But no one did.
He is shopping the idea around to air-bag companies, officials in other countries where rail suicides are a problem, and others, looking for grant money or an interested company or official to take the project under their wing.
He plans to ask the federal Transportation Research Board for $450,000 in funding for design development and implementation.
Steve Emslie, Palo Alto deputy city manager, submitted a letter in support of Raney's application.
"Why wouldn't we support something that could be a good idea?" Emslie said.
Raney has also contacted Caltrain officials. Agency spokesman Mark Simon said he told Raney that Caltrain can't get involved at this early stage.
"We don't have the resources, the staff or the facilities to be a test site for new ideas," Simon said. "You're talking about a hugely time-consuming effort."
But they appreciate any new ideas, Simon said.
"We wish (Raney) well and we're interested in seeing the outcome of his efforts," Simon said.