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SMART explains railroad issues

The railroad crossing at Lakeville and Washington streets is one that has been a problem for SMART.

JOHN O'HARA / FOR THE ARGUS-COURIER
Published: Thursday, December 27, 2012 at 10:19 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 27, 2012 at 10:19 a.m.

Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit this week provided more specifics into the ongoing railroad arm malfunctions that have snarled traffic around town during the past year, saying the problems are primarily due to vandalism.  SMART added that they are working to fix the problems.

Last week, responding to news reports that a railroad arm had closed on top of a resident's car, SMART said it had fixed that particular problem, and attributed it to a synchronization issue between the city's traffic lights and the train's railroad arm signals.

Then, on Dec. 19, another railroad arm malfunction occurred at the crossing on Lakeville and Washington streets, when the railroad arms went down for more than an hour, causing significant traffic congestion in the downtown area. The incident marked the 28th Petaluma railroad crossing malfunction reported to SMART in 2012.  

Carolyn Glendening, SMART's community education and outreach coordinator, said Friday that 10 of the 28 Petaluma incidents were caused by vandalism or tampering with the older tracks.  She said that vandalism sometimes occurs because people are trying to steal copper wiring that connects segments of the track together.  

Glendening pointed out that most crossings have a safety feature designed to lower the crossing gates if the track or signals have been tampered with. Once triggered, the arms stay down until a signal technician arrives on site to reset the system or replace any damaged components, she said. 

One solution that SMART is working on is to replace the old rail with continuous, welded steel rail, which will drastically minimize the amount of copper on the tracks and the opportunity for vandals to tamper, according to Glendening.

But the downtown malfunction on Dec. 19 was not the result of vandalism or track tampering. Instead, SMART officials said that an electronic component failed at the crossing and had to be replaced by technicians. According to Petaluma Police, the incident occurred at approximately 12 p.m. and backed up traffic from Lakeville Street, along Washington Street, up to Petaluma Boulevard North for approximately an hour and a half.  

Lt. Tim Lyons said that while the crossing arms were down, one officer directed traffic.  “It's hard on our resources,” said Lyons.  “When we have an officer committed that long to one location, it decreases our manpower and it affects response time for emergency personnel.”

Lyons added that the SMART technician took over an hour to arrive on scene.  He said that when police first arrived and called SMART, they were told a technician would arrive within 20 minutes. The technician did not arrive until one hour and twelve minutes had passed, Lyons said.

When asked why it had taken so long for a technician to arrive, Glendening said that technicians are currently working out in the field, all along the tracks, and that service calls are answered by the nearest available technician.  

Glendening said that the rest of the 28 malfunctioning crossing arm reports they've received this year, minus the 10 blamed on vandalism or tampering, were caused by a variety of factors.  An equipment breakdown that required the resetting or replacement of electrical components caused five incidents, including the one on Dec. 19.  The rest were due to trains in the area triggering the arms, on-track construction, crossing testing and synchronization problems with the city's traffic signals. Five separate calls for downed gates were cleared upon arrival, when technicians examined the mechanisms and found no issues with them.  

SMART said it is confident the number of crossing malfunctions occurring in Petaluma will be reduced as the kinks in the system are worked out and the older tracks are replaced.  “Between freight and construction, the whole system is getting a workout right now,” said Glendening.  She added that SMART is aware of the problems and is in the process of fixing them.

SMART is also asking that anyone who sees a malfunction report it to their service hotline at (866) 527-3499 and that anyone seeing people on the tracks, other than service and construction workers, notify the police to help curb incidents of vandalism.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com.)

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