SMART says no changes planned at San Rafael crossing after second death this year
SMART has no plans to make changes to a crossing in northern San Rafael where a pair of fatal collisions have occurred this year, the most recent happening last month when an 82-year-old driver was struck by the train after she stopped her car on the tracks.
San Rafael police found that Rosina Szele of San Rafael was at fault in the Sept. 17 incident when she drove her silver Mercedes sedan the wrong direction on North San Pedro Road and came to a rest just short of the lowered crossing gate arms near Los Ranchitos Road. She was critically injured and transported to MarinHealth Medical Center, where she died Sept. 22.
San Rafael police concluded their investigation earlier this month and sent the report to SMART. Police investigators ruled the collision with a northbound train was an accident, said San Rafael police Lt. Dan Fink.
“There’s nothing to indicate it’s anything other than that,” Fink said. “Absent further information that gives us reasons to think otherwise, we can only go on evidence at the scene that there was a car on the tracks, it was hit by the train and the driver tragically passed away.”
The fatality marked the second death along the North Bay’s commuter rail line this year. The first took place in July at the same crossing when a 36-year-old San Rafael man riding his bicycle was killed when he “deliberately went under” the lowered gate arms, said SMART Police Chief Jennifer McGill. The cyclist hit a barrier and fell onto the tracks where he was struck by an approaching northbound train. The death was ruled an accident.
In both cases, all rail safety equipment operated properly, McGill said. Additional sidewalk fencing had previously been installed at the crossing, she noted, as part of $500,000 in safety upgrades the agency made in 2019 at many of its 63 road-level crossings from Larkspur to north of Santa Rosa that lacked pedestrian gate arms. The sidewalk barriers are designed to increase safety by forcing pedestrians to slow down and be more aware as they approach the train tracks.
The two fatalities account for the only deaths along the SMART line this year. In both cases, SMART reviewed the crossing within days with San Rafael police and city public works staff. No additional changes were recommended at the location, and the crossing continues to meet all federal safety requirements, McGill said.
“Both of the incidents had a completely different set of circumstances leading to the driver and cyclist death,” she said. “From SMART’s perspective, everything was functioning as intended, and all safety equipment was working and visible.”
Fourteen people have died in train collisions since SMART initiated service in August 2017. Eight of those fatalities happened last year, including five that were ruled suicides. Of the 14 total deaths, eight have been ruled suicides, with the remaining six ruled accidents. Three other people have been hit by the train in accidents but survived.
The two deaths in 2020 are the lowest number in a single year since SMART launched service. McGill said she didn’t want to speculate about the reasons for the drop, but hoped the declining number this year was a result of the agency’s messaging campaigns surrounding public safety.
“We have done a significant outreach effort on an ongoing basis. I’d like to think the community is more aware of SMART and the rules of the road and paying attention,” she said.
Since March, when public health officials issued stay-home orders to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the train also has operated on a sharply reduced daily schedule, dropping from 38 routes to 16, with no weekend service.
A public discussion about the most recent fatality involving the train has yet to take place with the SMART board of directors. In the past, General Manager Farhad Mansourian has provided the agency’s 12-member board with information on such incidents in his bimonthly updates, but did not do so at the most recent board meeting on Oct. 7.
Marin County Supervisor Damon Connolly, a SMART board member whose supervisory district includes the site of this year’s fatalities — both involving people who were his constituents — did not make himself available for an interview. In a written statement, he said the agency has never to his recollection used board meetings to discuss such incidents, especially when they are still under investigation.
In fact, Mansourian and agency staff have addressed past incidents with the board on several occasions to help underscore safety as a top SMART priority. The San Rafael Police Department also submitted its report to SMART on Oct. 6, according to Fink, and the Marin County Coroner’s Office has released initial information about the case as it awaits toxicology results.
The Sept. 17 collision caused an estimated $10,000 in damage to the train, taking the affected rail car out of use for at least three months, McGill said. Incidents involving train damage, including past vehicle collisions, as well as costly maintenance and repairs, commonly come before the board.
Healdsburg City Councilman Joe Naujokas, a SMART board member, missed the Oct. 7 meeting because of commitments to his day job, but said he would have expected a more substantive update on the most recent fatality, based on past experience with agency staff. Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a 10-year board member, echoed similar sentiments, acknowledging that the lack of information provided to the board on the incident was a concern.
“Every death involving the SMART train is a horrible tragedy, regardless of the circumstances,” Zane said.
Novato Councilman Eric Lucan, chair of the SMART board, deferred all comment about the latest death to agency staff, the city of San Rafael and its Police Department. He would not say why Mansourian had not already publicly presented the information nor if a board item was warranted to discuss potential safety improvements at the crossing.
The next chance for SMART to address the matter is Wednesday , though McGill said she could not say if it will be on an upcoming board agenda. “That’s up to our board,” she said.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @kfixler.