The growing number of collisions between pedestrians and SMART trains has placed heightened attention on crossings throughout the year-old North Bay commuter rail line, prompting some advocates to call for additional measures to protect the public.
Steve Birdlebough, a retired Santa Rosa attorney who is active in local transportation and environmental groups, submitted a letter Monday to the Sonoma County Transportation Authority asking board members to consider adding sidewalk gates at SMART crossings to increase safety. He included photos of several locations where bicyclists and people on foot are able to proceed unhindered onto the tracks if they miss flashing lights and bells that warn of an oncoming train.
“Railroads grew up with at-grade crossings with gates to protect cars from trains or trains from cars,” said Birdlebough, who serves as the Sonoma County Transportation and Land Use Coalition advocacy chair. “Pedestrians would hear the bells … so would stop short of the tracks and you didn’t need gates to tell them. Now we’re experiencing the first of a new train culture. People are looking at their phone, looking at text messages or checking out something (else) as they’re walking.”
California led the nation last year with 214 pedestrians struck by trains, of which 123 died, according to Federal Railroad Administration data. Texas was second with 93 people hit, which included 41 deaths.
Birdlebough thinks installing sidewalk gates on some Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit crossings is the least the transportation community should consider as residents again familiarize themselves with trains following their decades-long absence from the region. Doing so where it makes sense, he said, can reduce the risk of future collisions with commuter trains.
“They’re here to stay,” Birdlebough said, “and we need to learn to live with them.”
In August, Joseph Jay De Frates, a 29-year-old gas station attendant, was killed when he walked in front of a northbound train at a crossing in Rohnert Park near Commerce Boulevard and Golf Course Drive.
An eyewitness said De Frates was wearing headphones and staring down at something in his hands, possibly a cellphone. He either didn’t hear or ignored the train engineer’s attempt to get his attention by sounding the horn multiple times, according to the witness.
Last October, a 19-year-old bicyclist from Santa Rosa became the first person to be hit by a SMART train. He was injured when he didn’t notice the lowered gates and rode across the tracks on West Steele Lane while wearing earphones and talking on his cellphone.
Since then, there have also been two confirmed suicides. The first was a 64-year-old woman in Santa Rosa in January, and the second a 72-year-old woman in Novato three weeks before De Frates died.
The Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety is leading the probe into De Frates’ death, but has yet to complete its investigation. Cmdr. Aaron Johnson said he hopes to identify a cause by the end of the week, but without reviewing more video footage provided by SMART would not speculate whether it was an accident or if De Frates walked onto the tracks intentionally.
Based on the initial details and witness statements, Johnson was uncertain what more could have been done to keep De Frates off the tracks.