Santa Fe New Mexican - Cyclist Josh Napier squeezed his brakes and slowed to stop as lights flashed and bells rang near the intersection of the Rail Runner and the Rail Trail at Zia Road on Friday afternoon. For Napier, a visitor from Charlotte, N.C., the bells and lights were enough to alert him of an approaching train.
But those safety measures didn’t prevent the deaths of two bicycle riders who were struck and killed by Rail Runner trains at crossings in Santa Fe earlier this year. Now the state Department of Transportation plans to spend nearly $1 million on safety gates, flashing lights and other improvements aimed at further protecting both pedestrians and cyclists.
Last week, crews began installing the new equipment. As Napier waited for the train to pass by Friday, black plastic bags still covered the new lights mounted on a steel pole.
In April, Suzanne LeBeau, 60, of Santa Fe was cycling along Zia Road when she rode her bike past warning lights and ringing bells and into the front of a train. She died at the scene. Less than two months later, Joseph Salazar, 41, was struck by the Rail Runner when he rode in front of a train on St. Michael’s Drive. He, too, seemed oblivious to the warning signals, according to video of the accident.
The Transportation Department initially responded to their concerns in August by stationing flaggers at major crossings to warn pedestrians and cyclists, and the trains were forced to slow down. According to a recent Legislative Finance Committee newsletter, the changes added seven to 10 minutes of travel time for each train trip, which might have been the cause of a reported drop in ridership. It is unclear if the new safety equipment will alleviate the delays.
The $975,000 worth of improvements are being funded by the Federal Highway Administration. More