SMART, Rohnert Park explore changes to railroad crossing after two deaths in two days
SMART and Rohnert Park city officials are exploring changes to the busy crossing where two people were struck and killed by passenger trains on back-to-back mornings last week, determining what, if anything, could be done to prevent such collisions.
The commuter rail agency revealed Monday it had targeted the crossing last November for a new safety system that would slow pedestrians traversing the tracks at Golf Course Drive near Commerce Drive. Funding for the sidewalk fencing system, dubbed a Z gate, was approved by the SMART board on May 15 in response to the death of a man at the Rohnert Park crossing last August.
It will be installed at 30 of SMART’s 62 road-level crossings, with work scheduled to be completed at the Rohnert Park crossing and 16 other locations by the end of the month. The second half of the $508,000 project is expected to be finished later this year.
A city task force and SMART officials returned Monday to the Rohnert Park crossing — where half of the rail system’s six fatalities have occurred — to determine whether other upgrades should be added to enhance safety and avoid more deaths. The investigation is routine after any train-related death, though two in two days increased the urgency of identifying potential changes, said SMART Police Chief Jennifer McGill.
“It’s one thing to look at the design on a piece of paper and another to stand out there and evaluate the crossing,” she said. “Obviously with two incidents two days in a row, we have to take a closer look. ... Is there something at this particular crossing we need to improve upon and enhance? That’s really the goal of why we were out there.”
Other safety measures, including more safety officers to monitor the line and adding a retractable pedestrian gate already employed at a handful of crossings up and down the system in Sonoma and Marin counties, will be considered. All options remain on the table, Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, said last week.
Even so, ensuring safety around railroad tracks requires that motorists, pedestrians and cyclists each abide by the rules of the road, said McGill and officials with the city’s public safety department.
“The pedestrian arms are only as good as somebody who follows the safety precautions,” said McGill. “The circumstances of the Thursday and Friday incidents, I don’t believe Z gates or pedestrian gates would have prevented either of those.”
Jimmie Joy Qualls, 30, originally of Brawley, California, was killed Thursday morning when she walked under a lowered gate crossing arm and was hit by a northbound train traveling as fast as 70 mph. The woman, known as “Rosebud” to friends, was homeless and had been acting strange the night before her death, according to Cecily Kagy, homeless outreach coordinator with the nonprofit COTS.
Qualls’ death has been devastating to her surviving family, including her mother and six siblings, said her aunt, Rhonda Villagran, of Los Angeles. The family has established a GoFundMe page to help cover the cost of a memorial service planned for Saturday in Ripon, California.
On Friday morning, a Petaluma man was struck and killed by a southbound train at the same crossing. The man, Gary Raymond Danning, 66, was identified Monday by the Coroner’s Office. Investigators said Danning was riding his bike on the sidewalk, wearing headphones with his head down and the hood of a sweatshirt over his head.