Suzanne LeBeau was an experienced bicyclist, say neighbors and friends, and they and cycling advocates don’t understand what led the Santa Fe woman to ride in front of a Rail Runner Express passenger train at the Zia Road rail crossing, where she was struck and killed Saturday morning.
Santa Fe police say LeBeau, a 60-year-old property management consultant, was riding her bicycle northbound on the Santa Fe Rail Trail west of St. Francis Drive, which mostly parallels the railroad tracks until just south of Zia Road — near the still unused Zia Station — where the trail crosses the railroad tracks. Red, flashing signal lights, bells and security arms warn of oncoming trains and block Zia Road vehicular traffic, although the crossing gates don’t physically block pedestrians or bicyclists from continuing onto the tracks.
And while the signals were operating at about 11 a.m. Saturday and the train’s engineer sounded a horn several times, police said, LeBeau rode onto the tracks and was hit by the train. She died at the scene.
Santa Fe police Lt. Andrew Padilla told a reporter at the scene on Saturday that a witness said the woman was wearing earphones. A final police investigative report on the incident was not yet available on Monday.
Tim Rogers, an avid bicyclist who helped draft the city’s bicycle master plan, said he worked as the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator with the New Mexico Department of Transportation as the rail trail was being built in 2007. He said state officials deemed the flashing lights, bells and guard arms at the Zia Road crossing as adequate warning for pedestrians and riders on the trail, as well as for nearby motorists.
“Up until now, it’s been OK,” he said. “But signage can only do so much. I think everyone would agree that it would be safer if it had a dedicated gate for trail users.”
New Mexico Department of Transportation officials said in an email “it’s a standard configuration” to have the road blocked by security arms but not nearby trails.
LeBeau, according to neighbor Charles Cole, was an enthusiastic bicyclist who often rode to locales such as the villages of Galisteo and Cerrillos, or who would drive to Albuquerque and cycle all day there. She was a good neighbor, Cole said, adding that she was the type of person who would strike up conversation or pick up newspapers and mail for neighbors on vacation.
Cole said he saw LeBeau riding her bicycle in the neighborhood’s cul-de-sac the morning before she was hit. She was wearing her helmet, he said, and he thought, “I wonder how far she is going today?”
Cole said LeBeau preferred open roads rather than riding in the city.
Stephen Newhall, a manager at the local Rob and Charlie’s bicycle store and an active cyclist, said he frequently rides on the portion of the Rail Trail where Saturday’s collision occurred. He said vehicular traffic at the intersection is a concern, but he hasn’t had issues with the trains.
He said the crossing gates and other warning signals are activated a while before the train arrives and that if LeBeau was traveling northbound on the trail, she would have been able to see the southbound train unless something distracted her.
Newhall said some bicyclists might be lulled into a false sense of security while riding on a bike trail.
“A lot of people think, ‘I am on the bike path, I am safe,’ ” Newhall said. “You still have to pay attention.”
Rail Runner spokeswoman Augusta Meyers said a train’s engineer has few options available in such situations. He or she can sound the horn and activate an emergency brake. But even then, Meyers said, it takes the train between a quarter of a mile and half a mile to stop. She said the train probably was traveling about 30 mph before the collision.
Meyers said the train was equipped with surveillance cameras and that local law enforcement have access to the footage. She added that investigators sometimes require drug tests for train staff after an incident, but they did not after Saturday’s accident. An engineer involved in such an incident, Meyers said, is given a chance to take three days off work and access to counseling.
LeBeau had worked for several years as a building manager at the Coronado Building downtown on East Palace Avenue, said Greg Gonzales, director of development with Branch Design and Development. When Branch bought the building a few years ago, they kept LeBeau on as a consultant, Gonzales said, adding that she was the “ultimate professional” and a detail-oriented person.
According to a death notice published in Monday’s New Mexican, details regarding a memorial service for LeBeau are pending and anyone wishing to leave a message for the family may do so at forsuzanne.com. Family members declined to speak to a reporter on Monday. Cole said LeBeau was preceded in death by her husband and is survived by her mother and two sisters who live in the area.
Contact Chris Quintana at 986-3093 or firstname.lastname@example.org.