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Railroad crossing arms close on Petaluma couple's car at green light

Published: Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 3:07 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 10, 2012 at 11:04 a.m.

A Petaluma couple who had a harrowing experience on the train tracks has asked SMART rail authorities to do a safety check to make sure train crossings at intersections are safe.

Barbara and Frank Simpson, longtime Petaluma residents in their 60s, said that late in the afternoon of Nov. 29, the railroad crossing arms at Lakeville and D Streets came crashing down on their new car as they were proceeding through the crossing on a green traffic signal.

"Why did my traffic signal turn green just as the train signal flashed red and the arm came down?" Barbara Simpson asked. "This could have been a very bad accident."

In a similar Thanksgiving Day incident on College Avenue in Santa Rosa, traffic was snarled after an apparent power loss caused crossing arms to drop, where they remained for several hours until a repair crew arrived.

The issue highlights safety concerns as rail service resumes along the Sonoma-Marin commute rail line. Freight trains have been running on the rail tracks through Sonoma County for about six months, surprising some motorists who have been driving over the idle tracks for a decade without a thought of an encounter with a train. Commuter rail service is planned to start in 2016.

But the Simpsons said the problem wasn't a surprise train, it was that the traffic signal wasn't synchronized with the rail crossing-arm signal, literally sending mixed messages to motorists.

The couple was on D Street, planning to head straight across Lakeville Street, where the SMART railroad tracks run through the intersection parallel to Lakeville.

Barbara Simpson said their car was first in line at a red light and she stepped on the accelerator as the signal turned green.

"I hit the gas to go and the train signal starts flashing red and the arm comes down at the same time the light turns green -- on my new car," she said.

Simpson was able to back up out of harm's way, but the arm continued to bounce on the Honda CRV's hood and windshield, she said.

"The traffic signal was green for my direction the whole time the train signal was flashing red," she said, and remained green as the train traveled through the intersection.

Farhad Mansourian, SMART's general manager, said he was just made aware of the problem on Friday.

In an email to the Simpsons on Friday afternoon, SMART community education and outreach coordinator Carolyn Glendening apologized for the problem.

"Our operation and construction crews have since verified that the traffic light and crossing warning device synchronization has been restored and is now working so that drivers receive consistent messages from the two devices," she wrote.

The note didn't explain how long the synchronization had been off, how it was corrected or if other crossings had been checked.

Frank Simpson said he was relieved that SMART corrected the problem.

"I'm satisfied they're aware of the situation and hope they will pay attention to it and make sure they're working," he said, "because someone in the future could get hurt."

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter @pressdemocrat.com.

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