Rohnert Park asks SMART to drop train speed through intersection after 5th fatality
Rohnert Park is calling on SMART to reduce the speed of its commuter trains through a busy intersection where five people have been struck and killed in the past 13 months, just as the City Council approved an outside review of safety at its crossings on Tuesday.
The city’s request, which will be formally submitted in a letter to Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, will be finalized later this month and ask that SMART’s board discuss safety at the Golf Course Drive crossing at a future meeting. In the letter, the council will also renew its request for gate arms that block sidewalks to be added at the intersection, where a woman took her life on Sept. 26, the second suicide and fifth death in that area.
Rohnert Park Mayor Gina Belforte said her plea for the rail agency to lower the high speed of trains passing through the intersection while the city-funded study is completed would help address an element attracting people to the site to end their lives. SMART’s compliance, she said, would show its willingness to work with the city on improvements at the problematic intersection, especially given continued reluctance among the agency’s staff to meet publicly with the council.
“That would at least show they have a concern to the folks who live in Rohnert Park and work and serve our community,” Belforte said at Tuesday night’s council meeting. “This area in Rohnert Park is becoming a magnet for people who want to commit suicide. It’s taking a toll. I just really feel, as a city, we have to do something.”
Officials with SMART contend the trains’ speed was not a factor in the deaths at the crossing, which together represent half of the system’s fatalities since passenger service began in August 2017. The rail line is designed to hit top speeds of 79 mph, which it achieves at points along its current 43-mile trip from San Rafael to Santa Rosa’s northern outskirts near Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.
Jennifer McGill, SMART’s public safety chief, would not confirm the train’s speed in last month’s death of the 41-year-old Rohnert Park woman, calling it “not relevant.” The train traveled as fast as 68 mph through the Rohnert Park intersection near Commerce Boulevard during one of the collisions, which was among the three that were ruled accidents.
“That was inattention, which had nothing to do with the speed of the train,” said McGill, who for the past month has doubled as SMART’s operations manager, in an interview last week. “The train speed in this case and the other suicide is not relevant. That individual was there for a specific purpose.”
McGill said SMART is doing all it can to minimize the loss of life, such as the recent installation of sidewalk fencing at 30 of its 63 crossings, including at Golf Course Drive, to force pedestrians and cyclists to pay more attention as they cross the tracks. SMART also increased patrols along the entire rail line by a private security service after a spate of five deaths over 19 days this summer — three of which occurred near the same Rohnert Park crossing.
She said she was unaware of SMART ever dropping the train’s speed at any location along the line during its more than two years of operations, and would not comment further about the Rohnert Park crossing until after the city-funded consultant study is completed next spring. Repeated email, phone and text message requests for an interview with Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, have gone unanswered over a two-week period.