NM: Bicyclist Dead After Being Struck by Rail Runner

June 16--Santa Fe police say a bicyclist riding along a St. Michael's Drive sidewalk was hit and killed Monday morning by a New Mexico Rail Runner Express train, the second time in two months that a bicyclist in the city was fatally struck by a passenger train at a railroad crossing.

The man, who has not yet been identified, was pronounced dead at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center.

Police department spokeswoman Celina Espinoza said the man wasn't carrying any identification, so investigators likely would have to use fingerprints and dental imprints in an effort to identify him. She also said it's unclear if he was wearing a helmet.

The bicyclist was pedaling west along the north side of St. Michael's Drive prior to the collision a little before 11:30 a.m. Safety bars had lowered across the road to block vehicular traffic, signal lights were flashing, and warning bells were ringing at time of the incident, Espinoza said. However, as with other such railroad crossings, no safety arms block the adjacent walkways.

Rail Runner spokeswoman Augusta Meyers said the train was traveling about 25 mph when it struck the cyclist. Meyers said the engineer activated the train's horn and brakes, to no avail. Meyers previously has said it takes the train between a quarter of a mile and half a mile to stop.

The New Mexico Department of Transportation and Santa Fe fatality investigation teams were on scene throughout the day, and crime technicians snapped photos of the crumpled mountain bike in the middle of the train tracks. Police closed the Santa Fe Rail Trail on the northern side of St. Michael's Drive and detoured bicyclists and pedestrians to alternative routes.

Meyers said the train was carrying about 225 passengers, who had to be bused to the Santa Fe Depot and South Capitol train stations.

According to passengers on board, the same train previously had hit a horse near Santo Domingo Pueblo, also known as Kewa Pueblo. Meyers confirmed that the train had struck an animal, which disconnected one of the air hoses on the train's undercarriage. Passenger Tony Martinez said it felt "like an axle fell off" in that incident. But he said he hardly noticed when the train hit the bicyclist.

"It felt like someone threw a rock at the train," Martinez said.

Passenger Jeremiah Valdez said following the collision that train operators wouldn't tell the passengers what had happened. "It just stopped all of sudden," Valdez said.

He estimated he was stuck on the train for about 90 minutes. Valdez said he didn't see or hear the collision.

Other passengers echoed his remarks, saying they didn't see the collision and didn't learn what happened until much later.

Passengers trying to catch the afternoon southbound train were bused to the train station on N.M. 599 and transported south from that location.

Local bicycling safety expert Tim Rogers said most cycling groups tell bicyclists to avoid riding on a sidewalk if possible.

"Sidewalks have a lot more conflicts than people realize," Rogers said. "If you want to ride on the sidewalk, you're a fast-moving pedestrian."

Had the bicyclist been riding on the roadway, he would have been blocked by the rail crossing's safety gates, Rogers confirmed. He added that a busy major street with no bicycle lane and fast-moving vehicles, like St. Michael's Drive and St. Francis Drive, can make some bicyclists feel safer riding on the sidewalk.

In April, 60-year-old Suzanne LeBeau died after she was hit by the Rail Runner train at the Zia Road crossing just west of St. Francis Drive. In that case, LeBeau rode into the oncoming southbound train after crossing St. Francis Drive.

LeBeau's family said they would petition the state to install a safety gate across the bike trail at that crossing to prevent another bicyclist or pedestrian from suffering LeBeau's fate. Rogers said the lack of a dedicated crossing gate at the sidewalk on St. Michael's Drive will likely revive the discussion surrounding the need for safety gates at rail crossings throughout the city.

"It's hard to believe something like this happened again," Rogers said.

The New Mexico Department of Transportation said officials are still reviewing the LeBeau incident and haven't yet decided if pedestrian gates are necessary at such crossings.

"Police continue to collect data and investigate the scene," state Transportation Secretary Tom Church said of Monday's incident. "To our knowledge, all of the flashing lights and safety devices were operable. This is a tragic accident. We will continue our work on public awareness about safety along railroad tracks."

Meyers said the train engineer has the option of taking three days off following such an incident.

Contact Chris Quintana at 986-3093 or cquintana@sfnewmexican.com

Copyright 2014 - The Santa Fe New Mexican