Trapped on the Tracks

Robin Seeley  Two signals trap drivers on railroad tracks crossing Fruitvale Avenue in Oakland. The first is at the far right. The second has two lights: one appears at the left-hand top edge of the BART garage visible in the background, the other at the green roofline of the bar on the corner. The bus and car on the far side of the tracks in the right-hand lane are moving toward the green light at the corner of San Leandro Avenue.

Trapped on the Tracks

The Old Testament prescribes specific punishment for malfeasance:  an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.  Following that principle, a Biblical patriarch would inflict traffic trauma on the person responsible for the God-forsaken traffic signals at the train tracks on Fruitvale Avenue near the Fruitvale BART Station in Oakland.

The Alameda Sun previously published an article on this topic, complete with photographic evidence, (“Traffic, Rail Lights Out of Sync at Fruitvale Ave. Crossong,” Mar. 3) as well as a subsequent detailed letter in response, describing further problems with this ill-conceived railroad crossing. 

I recently discovered yet another problem, and it’s a doozy. 

As the photo shows, last year traffic engineers with presumably good intentions added two new traffic signals on either side of the railroad tracks.  I learned the hard way that the two signals are not properly synchronized. Shouldn’t they be working as a team?

The second signal doesn’t realize that if you’ve passed the first signal legally on a yellow light, you will still need a few seconds to reach the next intersection safely. It will turn red while you are on the train tracks. To make matters worse, nothing marks where to stop in compliance with the second signal, not even a white line on the pavement. To be sure you’ve left ample room for a train to pass safely behind your car, you need to drive through the red signal. Unfortunately, by then you’ve already run the light. The only alternative is to wait out the otherwise sluggish signal while on top of, or dangerously close to, the train tracks (depending on the length of your vehicle). If only that red light would turn green as quickly as the yellow turns red.

When this happened to me, I chose the lesser of two evils and drove through the second red light rather than risk getting whacked by Amtrak. So far, I haven’t gotten a ticket in the mail, despite the obvious camera on top of the second signal. If I do receive a ticket, however, I would love to explain this one to a judge. You can’t make this stuff up!

In case you’re wondering whether this happens because the signal twins are identical and must always display the same color, the answer is “no.” You can scarcely see this with the naked eye, but in a series of swift shots, I caught one image showing that the first signal apparently does turn red a nanosecond before the second one. But the second signal staying yellow for an imperceptible instant longer than the first doesn’t help anyone who is observing the speed limit or just cautiously slowing down while approaching the busy intersection. Prudent drivers are punished, whereas a speeder might make it through OK.

Most Alamedans have made it safely past the Ides of March. But they still need to beware the road to BART, even though it may be paved with good intentions. 


Robin Seeley is an Alameda resident who occasionally ventures into Oakland.