It had been a decade since Petaluma heard the clickety-clack of trains rumbling down the tracks, but that changed this week when freight service resumed.

This is good news for businesses such as Hunt & Behrens, Dairyman's Feed & Supply and Petaluma Poultry, which have been feeling the strain of rising feed transport costs.

The North Coast Railroad Authority is ready to let the trains roll through town. The final obstacle to freight service was cleared Tuesday night when the Novato City Council approved a revision to a court-approved agreement between the city and the Railroad Authority by a 3-2 vote.

According to Novato City Council Member Carole Dillon-Knutson, the revisions included welded track from Highway 37 to the Novato Creek Bridge, a speed limit of 25 mph through town and use of a quieter, clean-burning engine through Novato. The quieter welded tracks do not have to be in place until 2013.

Dillon-Knutson, along with Novato Council Member Pat Eklund, voted against the revision. "They (NCRA offcials) are not symphathetic or respectful of our citizens and the changes in the quality of life the train will bring," Dillon-Knutson said.

Novato Mayor Madeline Kellner and Council Members Denise Athas and Jeanne MacLeamy voted to approve the revised agreement.

According to Mitch Stogner, executive director of the NCRA, the Novato City Council's approval was the last item needed in order for the trains to start running through Sonoma County.

The NCRA leases the tracks to a private short-haul rail operator, the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Co. The trains will be used to haul feed grains, wood products, building materials, wine and other merchandise between Sonoma, Marin and Napa counties. Trains will only run during daylight hours and make one round-trip on the line, three days a week on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Hunt & Behrens, Dairyman's Feed & Supply and Petaluma Poultry recently signed on with NWP to use freight service. Hunt & Behrens was the first in line to receive a train pulling five carloads of grain early Wednesday morning.

"It costs us $15 a ton to ship by feed truck and we'll be saving half of that with freight service," said Bob Falco, co-owner of Hunt & Behrens on Lakeville Street. "It's a huge savings for us, and that means a savings for our customers. Plus it means eliminating trucks on the roads and them sitting in traffic."

Hunt & Behrens received two rail car shipments at the end of last month as part of a test run for the freight service, which will run from Napa to Windsor. The company plans on shipping 10 to 12 tons of feed by rail twice a week.

"We've been in business for 90 years and it's only been the last 10 years we didn't have rail service," said Falco. "It's fantastic to have it back. We just hope it continues and stays. We're definitely looking forward to the savings and glad to have the trains back."

In addition to lowering transportation costs, freight service is considered a much greener way to ship goods.

"Every rail car equals at least four trucks," said Arnie Riebli, chairman of the board for Dairyman's Feed & Supply. "That's four trucks no longer on the road and out of the picture. There's a reduction in the carbon footprint with trains."

Dairyman's Feed receives feed grain from companies in Canada and the Midwest, which are shipped by rail as far as Napa. Then the feed has to be off-loaded onto trucks and driven into Petaluma.

"Freight service will allow us to have the rail car come all the way through, directly to Petaluma," said Riebli. "We get to save some dollars avoiding the trucking costs and reduce the carbon footprint. Taking trucks out of the traffic picture is a no-brainer to me."

Freight service on the Northwestern Pacific Railroad stopped in 2001 when federal transportation regulators halted service on the storm-damaged route. The NCRA spent $68 million to repair the 62-mile track between Windsor and Napa. The line remains closed north of Windsor.

(Contact Yovanna Bieberich at ybieberich@arguscourier.com)