Second person in two days struck, killed by SMART train in Rohnert Park
For the second time in two days, a SMART train hit and killed a person at the same Rohnert Park intersection.
It was the third fatal crash at the Golf Course Drive crossing and the sixth deadly train collision for the North Bay passenger rail line since service began in August 2017.
A man riding a bicycle Friday morning was struck by a southbound Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit train shortly before 6:42 a.m. Less than 24 hours earlier, Jimmie Joy Qualls, 30, was run over by a train after she walked under a gate crossing arm and then was hit on the tracks by a northbound train believed to be going between 65 mph and 70 mph. Qualls was apparently homeless, and earlier this week was warned multiple times by a SMART code enforcement officer not to walk on the train tracks.
The unidentified bicyclist, who investigators said appeared to be in his 60s, was riding west on the southside sidewalk toward the rail line. Video from the SMART train showed the cyclist approaching the tracks wearing a hooded pullover and his head down, apparently with headphones in his ears, Rohnert Park Public Safety Deputy Chief Aaron Johnson said.
“As he approached the tracks, it looks like he acknowledged the train and tried to dismount his bike to get out of the way, at which point he was struck,” said ?Johnson, who noted the crash appeared to be accidental. The Sonoma County Coroner’s office was trying to identify the man Friday.
The operator of the train, carrying ?54 passengers, laid on the horn and activated an emergency brake, but couldn’t avert the crash. The man’s body was discovered roughly 75 yards south of the point of impact with the train. It was unclear how fast the train was going, though trains in that area can reach 79 mph, said Jennifer McGill, chief of police for SMART.
Two different operators were driving the trains involved in Thursday and Friday’s crashes, McGill said.
Before the deadly collision Friday morning, the train’s warning lights were flashing and investigators determined the gate arm blocking traffic on Golf Course Drive - but not the sidewalk where the cyclist was riding - was properly deployed. Just east of the tracks at the intersection, a sign on the sidewalk states: “Watch for Trains.”
The California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates rail safety statewide, is investigating both of this week’s deaths caused by SMART trains, an agency spokesman said.
Despite back-to-back fatal crashes at the same Rohnert Park intersection, McGill insisted the transit line’s deadliest train crossing is in compliance with applicable rail safety rules and said there are no immediate plans to bolster safety there. SMART uses pedestrian arms to block crossings at intersections where only pedestrians can walk across the tracks and has no plans to make an exception for the Golf Course Drive crossing, she said.
“We do not plan on adding pedestrian arms at this time at the crossing at Golf Course Drive because each crossing on the SMART line is safe exactly as they are,” McGill said. “They all meet state and federal guidelines for safety.”
As usual, however, after fatal collisions, SMART’s senior leaders will gather to discuss whether any improvements are warranted along the 43-mile rail line stretching from San Rafael north to the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport in north Santa Rosa.
Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, declined an interview request Friday to discuss rail safety in light of the fatalities this week. A transit agency spokeswoman said Mansourian was traveling on the East Coast.
After the two deaths this week, Rohnert Park police officers patrolling near the railroad tracks are on high alert. However, based on the circumstances surrounding each crash, no additional officers will be assigned to monitor the tracks near the Golf Course Drive crossing, Rohnert Park Public Safety Director Tim Mattos said.
“We’re looking at the bigger picture and trying to figure out how to make sure the public is aware of train safety and track safety to make sure those crossings are even safer,” Mattos said. “We can continue to put stuff in place, but we really need people to adhere to the safety precautions.”
In August, the first fatality at the Golf Course Drive rail crossing involved 29-year-old Joseph De Frates. He was hit and killed by a SMART train while walking east on Golf Course Drive. De Frates’ mother has said investigators told her that her son had bought a pair of noise-isolating headphones shortly before the crash and was likely listening to loud music at the time of that crash.
“All three of the fatalities in this intersection, in my opinion, were avoidable,” said Johnson, Rohnert Park’s deputy public safety chief.
The deaths underscore how important it is for the public to be aware of their surroundings when approaching railroad tracks, Petaluma resident Gregg Gallagher said, while waiting for his southbound train at SMART’s downtown Santa Rosa station Friday afternoon.
“I still look before crossing,” Gallagher said, pointing to the station’s pedestrian gates, which were raised. “Stop, look and listen before crossing the tracks.”
He called the two train-related deaths this week “awful.”
Mariana Lopez, 17, of Petaluma, who was also at the downtown Santa Rosa train station, said she recently saw a man and woman sitting with feet hung over the station’s raised platform, both ignoring a honking incoming train until the last moment. Lopez thinks people not paying attention has been a key factor in the train fatalities.
Rohnert Park Mayor Gina Belforte said SMART officials have been asked to attend a July 9 city council meeting, adding the city could “be a megaphone for their safety issues.”
Regarding rail safety and self-awareness around the train tracks, “People just need to understand that train is going 65, 70 mph, and people just have to pay attention to what that means: You’re not going to win with a train,” Belforte said. “You’re not.”
Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas contributed to this story.
You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5216. On Twitter @wsreports. You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chaves at 707-521-5203. On Twitter @nashellytweets.