SMART considers role of quiet zones after recent deaths

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To win voters’ support for a tax to build a commuter rail system in the North Bay, local officials decided to reduce the noise from passing trains by allowing them to roll through busy intersections without sounding their horns.

Now, after an unprecedented spate of deaths along the rail line — four in 16 days — Sonoma-Marin Rail Transit board members are reconsidering the decision to create “quiet zones” as they undertake a wide- ranging review of ways to improve safety.

While SMART leaders continue to affirm the system is safe, top staff and members of its 12-member board of directors say they are open to considering any and all options as the agency faces its biggest crisis since it started passenger service in August 2017.

“Every time, we need to look at the incidents, and we need to look at all the tools in our toolbox,” said Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager. “Not just SMART, all of us. We need everybody to chip in and help us be successful.”

Several directors say further study of successful collision prevention practices used by other passenger rail systems around the nation is needed to address growing public concerns.

“We have to make it the safest system and everything should be part of the equation,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who is also a longtime SMART board member.

The rail system was designed for so-called “quiet zones” — which prohibit trains from sounding their horns, unless there is an emergency — as part of a decision by SMART officials to reduce public opposition to the trains, Zane said. Two years after a 2006 ballot measure narrowly failed, 70% of voters in Sonoma and Marin counties supported a quarter-cent sales tax to fund SMART in 2008.

“I think it was an issue in terms of getting the (sales tax) measure passed. Now it’s a different time, with too many tragic deaths, and we need to have the discussion (about quiet zones),” Zane said.

Today, with the exception of a gap between Petaluma and Novato near the Redwood Landfill north of Novato, SMART’s entire 43-mile passenger line falls under the federally permitted restriction. The designation makes it the only commuter rail agency in the country to operate with quiet zones in place across nearly its full line, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

To make the rail line eligible for quiet zones, SMART built safety upgrades into the system, including crossing gate arms on all four sides of a roadway, additional signs and other supplemental devices designed to take the place of the horn. Each local jurisdiction then decides if it wishes to seek approval from federal regulators to designate their individual crossings as quiet zones.

“There has to be something done to compensate for the loss of the audible warning,” said Warren Flatau, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration. The agency remains neutral on the safety of quiet zones, he said, officially finding that they neither improve nor reduce collision protections. The agency is also in the middle of another study of their safety.

But under a sudden and intensified call to rethink the system, some SMART board members are suggesting a review of the role quiet zones may be playing in pedestrian and bicyclist collisions. The question has divided board members as they approach their meeting Wednesday afternoon, which will be the first since the string of recent deaths.

“I understand politically why there are quiet zones, but holy crap, why do we have a train going that fast silently?” said Healdsburg Councilman Joe Naujokas, who joined the SMART board in February. “I know that we have that option and there are ramifications on jurisdictions based on those options, but I don’t know, it makes me personally super uncomfortable. I don’t like it.”

The deaths illustrate one of the inherent dangers of a rail system that traverses public roads: there are many places where trains and people cross paths.

The most similar type of commuter rail system in the region is Caltrain, which carries 19 million people annually between San Francisco and Santa Clara counties. Six people have been struck and killed by Caltrain this year, two more than SMART, which has averaged about 650,000 passengers annually during its first two years of operations.

With ground-level tracks that cross more than 60 streets, SMART is very different than the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, which primarily runs on elevated and underground lines. BART, which carries 126 million passengers annually, has experienced three fatalities this year, one fewer than SMART.

Both deaths involving SMART trains last week appear to be suicides. Blaring a horn as the train entered a crossing would not have prevented those deaths, said Supervisor David Rabbitt, a member of the SMART board.

“I’m not sure if it has any impacts on those incidents,” he said. “Certainly not the suicides, whether the horn is blasting at crossings or not.”

It’s also speculative, other board members added, to consider whether the horn would have prevented the pair of accidental deaths on back-to-back mornings at a busy Rohnert Park crossing late last month. In each circumstance, the engineer sounded the horn to alert the victims — a bicyclist wearing headphones and a pedestrian — that they were in the path of a fast-moving train.

Eight people have now been killed by SMART trains in 23 months of passenger service. Five were ruled suicides and three were deemed accidents, including the 2018 death of a Rohnert Park man who walked into the path of a train while he was looking down at his cellphone and wearing headphones. In all cases, SMART reported that the engineer sounded the horn for an emergency and all safety equipment was working properly.

“It’s fair to say the thing that makes it most challenging is whether some behavior is just not controllable,” said Gary Phillips, chairman of the SMART board and mayor of San Rafael. “From an operational standpoint, if somebody wants to commit suicide, I don’t know if you can protect against that.”

Nonetheless, the string of deaths has taken a serious toll on morale inside the agency. Zane acknowledged it is SMART’s greatest challenge since 2010, when critics attempted to rescind the sales tax underpinning the rail agency, and could end up hurting engineer retention rates.

“It’s an agency that’s successfully faced challenge after challenge, but the loss of life and how it affects employees, there’s no bigger crisis,” she said. “The employees have gone through hell with these strikes, so yeah, that’s a crisis.”

The union representing the engineers, who operate the trains, is scheduled to meet with SMART leaders Monday to discuss growing safety concerns.

Other board members were unwilling to call the recent deaths more than a significant obstacle, noting that fatalities on the rail line have been a long understood possibility, if not inevitable. But the issue, they said, could lead to other challenges, including public support for the sales tax that subsidizes service and SMART’s desire to renew the tax next year. Collisions also impact the reliability of the system by causing train delays and cancellations, which in turn could hurt ridership.

In the meantime, board members are willing to review SMART’s quiet zones to see if amending the whistle bans might help the situation.

The early public meetings on the topic of quiet zones in San Rafael drew some of the largest crowds Phillips ever witnessed as the city’s mayor. Yet, he’d still consider the idea of examining their impact on safety, though the vast majority of the city’s residents supported the push for quiet zones.

San Rafael is in the process of applying for additional quiet zones from federal regulators and the state’s Public Utilities Commission, seeking the designation on five more road-level crossings in preparation for service starting to SMART’s future southern terminus in Larkspur by the end of the year.

As the board returns to meet Wednesday afternoon at SMART headquarters in Petaluma, the future of quiet zones is likely to be one of the topics up for debate, several board members said.

“I don’t have a concern that it’s a safe system,” said Zane. “Can we examine each one of these crossings? Absolutely, yes. Sadly with each death, we’re forced to do so. There’s going to be fatalities, no question about it. But the question is, have we done everything we can to decrease these?”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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