SMART chief calls for community effort to end streak of train-related deaths

The unprecedented spate of people killed by SMART trains is galvanizing elected leaders and transit agency officials in a call to action to do whatever is necessary to end the deaths.

The board of directors in charge of Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit will meet Wednesday for the first time since a string of five deaths, three of them believed to be suicides, along the tracks began June 27.

The range of proposed solutions from county leaders and mental health experts includes adding security measures at train crossings and installing emergency phones similar to freeway call boxes along the 43-mile rail line. Other ideas include slowing the high-speed trains and even temporarily halting train service altogether to force a break in a deadly chain of train deaths.

As the recent deaths have mounted, SMART officials have said they are dealing with a mental health crisis that goes well beyond the scope of upgrading safety on the 2-year-old rail transit system.

“We just can’t go on like this, man. We can’t. It’s just awful,” said Shirlee Zane, a county supervisors and SMART board member. “It’s not transportation, it’s a national crisis and we have to do something about it.”

For Zane, the solution starts with a SMART-led task force that collaborates with county leaders, state lawmakers and private health care providers. She mentioned emergency phones placed at least at problem crossings and more security measures at all crossings as options that should be considered.

Farhad Mansourian, general manager of SMART, declined to say Tuesday what specific steps he will suggest to the rail agency’s board Wednesday to deal with the recent string of train fatalities. He said he favors a community of leaders from various agencies coming together to explore all options to come up with solutions.

“We are facing a public health crisis and we must figure out what to do,” Mansourian said. “The community is hurting, asking for help. We must connect the dots and let’s deal with the crisis at the root problem and try to stop it.”

Supervisor James Gore had perhaps the most drastic idea, which came from a conversation with a friend: Shut down the entire SMART system for a couple of days to give the community time to reset.

Supervisor Chairman David Rabbitt, who sits on both the SMART and Golden Gate Bridge District boards, has committed to asking state legislators for help and may put the rail transit crisis on the supervisors’ agenda for their next meeting Tuesday.

Rabbitt acknowledged Golden Gate Bridge officials have had success deterring suicides by increasing foot patrols along the 1.7-mile span. The vast majority of people intending to jump off the bridge now change their minds thanks to contact with a member of the bridge safety patrol. And the bridge district board is in the process of installing a safety net beneath the bridge deck, at a total cost of $210 million, to prevent people from leaping to their deaths.

SMART already incorporates safety measures such as train warning signs, crossing arms and gates and fencing along the entire line. Last week, local officials suggested it might be time to regularly use a horn to warn people of an approaching train, which would mean potentially scrapping or reducing so-called “quiet zones” as the line meanders from San Rafael north to Sonoma County airport.

Also, SMART is spending more than $500,000 to install Z gates, which direct pedestrians and bicyclists around sidewalk fencing, across 30 of its 62 road-level crossings to improve safety. It moved Rohnert Park’s Golf Course Drive crossing to the top of the list after accidental deaths there on back-to-back mornings in late June.

Since last month, the county’s Department of Health and Human Services has been working with supervisors and directly with Mansourian, health department director Barbie Robinson said.

Long-term goals of the collaboration include providing various crisis intervention training to make people more aware of suicidal behavior and creating suicide awareness campaigns for community members riding the train or living near rail line crossings, said Bill Carter, director of the behavioral health division.

In addition, local health department officials are cognizant of suicide rates that are increasing locally and nationwide. About 75 Sonoma County residents die by suicide each year, according to a September report on suicide prevention published by the health department. The suicide death rate for the county is 13.4 deaths per 100,000, slightly higher than the state average of 10.4 people per 100,000.

“Suicide rates in general are on the rise, so it is a concern in the mental health field across the board,” Carter said. “The county has invested a lot in suicide prevention efforts, like training professionals in the community, so we take this very seriously.”

County health leaders have suggested that SMART employees could benefit from further suicide-prevention training to prepare them if they come in contact with passengers or people near the tracks who are struggling.

To be sure, the string of train deaths has taken an emotional toll on the train conductors, engineers and everyone who works for SMART.

“Our engineers are stressed out and demoralized by the situation of what’s going on,” said Felix Huerta, a union official with Operating Engineers Local Union 3, which represents 28 rail agency employees.

Huerta has asked SMART to hire more code enforcement officials who patrol the rail line, saying it’s too big a task for the single employee now doing the job.

The rail agency has included money in its 2018-2019 budget for at least one more full-time enforcement officer but hasn’t hired one.

Tesia Blonski, who works as a peer support specialist for a local mental health wellness center, said often people think talking about suicide is taboo, which can be just as damaging as being overly talkative about them.

Blonski recommended suicide-prevention conversations in the schools, at the family dinner table and more broadly in community forums.

“The majority of the population may not be touched by mental health on a day-to-day level until it comes to something publicly happening like a school shooting or multiple SMART train deaths,” she said. “This spree of suicides along the SMART train is maybe pointing to something larger going on that we can’t ignore anymore.”

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