The deaths of two people struck by trains on San Francisco Street last weekend have left Flagstaff Police and city officials with few ideas about how to fix the problem.
Anthony Ortiz, 66, was killed on Sept. 15 after being hit by a westbound train as he walked north to Route 66 and Sheldon Negale, 40, was killed Monday night after being hit by an oncoming train while crossing the tracks heading south.
Police have declared both incidents accidental and stated that both Ortiz and Negale ignored the working lights, gates and bells that signaled an oncoming train.
There was nothing to keep Negale from crossing the tracks since there are no crossing arms for southbound pedestrians.
Both men may have been intoxicated during the fatal incidents. Police found a bottle of Vodka on Ortiz at the time of his death, while the conductor of the train that hit Negale said that “He looked intoxicated because he did not react to the train noise and was walking slowly across the tracks.”
According to the police report, the conductor repeatedly blew his horn as he approached closer to Negale, who the conductor said kept his head down while he was crossing the tracks.
As for Ortiz, according to the police report, he and a group of tourists crossed onto the tracks after an eastbound train passed and the bars went up, only to have the bars quickly come down as a westbound train approached. Ortiz was then hit and killed by the train.
Flagstaff Police Public Information Officer Sgt. Cory Runge said that police are unable to do more than enforce the current laws.
“We enforce trespassing laws when people illegally cross the train tracks, but at a certain point an individual has some responsibility to protect themselves,” Runge said. “The fact is that the lights, sirens and bells were working and these people chose to expose themselves.”
Crossing the train tracks while a train is coming is labeled as trespassing because the tracks are private property of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad.
In 2010, the city and BNSF agreed to establish a "quiet zone" in downtown, meaning train conductors are not required to blow their horns every time the train crosses the at-grade crossings. Conductors can still use horns if they feel there is a dangerous situation.
City of Flagstaff spokeswoman Jessica Drum said when the quiet zone was established in downtown Flagstaff a safety consultant did not require or recommend that the city install barriers on the opposite side of the one-way streets that intersect with the tracks.
“Those gates are typically for cars, not for pedestrians,” she said.
Both railroad crossings in downtown Flagstaff that intersect with one-way streets only have barriers on the side where cars can drive from, and the opposite side is not blocked. That means there are gates only on the south side of the tracks on San Francisco Street and the north side of the tracks on Beaver Street.
The city is not considering adding gates on the opposite sides, Drum said.
When the city and BNSF agreed to stop using the wayside horns in the downtown area in 2010, the city looked into the cost of installing the additional gates, Drum said. Each gate structure would cost about $750,000 to buy and install, she said.
The city has no plans to remove the quiet zone from the downtown area, according to Drum.
It is not clear that bringing back conductor train horns downtown would prevent accidents.
Coconino County averaged 1.63 accidental train deaths per year from 2017 to 2010, when the downtown quiet zone was created; from 2010 to 2003 the city averaged 1.37 train deaths, according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration.
The FRA collects suicide data separately from fatal accident data.
Runge said that ending the quiet zone would not fix the problem.
“The sirens are more consistent and we still had problems even when we had the (conductor) horns downtown.”
In July, the city council received a petition from neighbors and businesses asking for the removal of the wayside horns at the Steves Boulevard and Fanning Drive crossings. Both of those crossings are two-way streets and have barriers on both sides of the tracks. The council will discuss removing the horns at a work session in January.