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 met 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, 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.
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.