After years of driving blithely over idle railroad crossings, Sonoma County residents are being urged to be extra cautious now that freight trains are rumbling down the tracks again.
"Are trains going again? I didn't even realize it," said driver Susan Dormant, stopped at a light recently near the D and Lakeville street crossing in Petaluma. "I'll have to pay more attention."
Two weeks ago, freight trains began hauling their first commercial cargo in a decade in Sonoma County. There had been no cargo service on the Northwestern Pacific Railroad since 2001, when federal transportation regulators halted traffic because of storm damage on the tracks.
In May, after the North Coast Railroad Authority spent $68 million to repair 62 miles of track between Windsor and Napa County, the Federal Railroad Administration lifted its embargo, clearing the way for freight hauling to begin again from Napa to Windsor.
Rail personnel are starting slowly and getting acclimated, said Mitch Stogner, executive director of the North Coast Railroad Authority.
For the first year, the authority will be limited to no more than three round-trip journeys a week, probably on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The trains will travel at no more than 25 mph and can be no longer than 15 cars, but more likely will be about five cars, Stogner said.
"We all understand that safety is paramount," he said.
County emergency responders received a safety briefing before the first trains started running and are in turn training firefighters, dispatchers and other public safety workers.
Wes Kitchel, assistant Sonoma County Fire chief, said his workers will prepare for train accidents involving both vehicles and pedestrians.
"How many people have you seen run a red light because they're in a hurry? It's not a matter of &‘if,' it's a matter of &‘when' there's going to be an accident. We're all in a hurry these days," he said.
Couple that with unexpected trains rolling down tracks that have been dormant for years and the safety hazard is multiplied.
"That's several thousand pounds rolling through. Even at 25 mph, it's going to tear a car apart and it's definitely not going to be a good thing for people in the vehicle, nor is it going to be good for someone standing on the tracks," Kitchel said.
There are 56 crossings along the 62-mile stretch, including 45 in Sonoma County. Most are marked with warning signs, lights and safety arms that lower when a train is coming.
But there are also several private crossings, which generally have stop signs but not lights and barriers.
In Petaluma, there are nine public crossings and four private crossings. At those crossings, engineers are supposed to sound the train's horn and come almost to a stop before proceeding, Stogner said.
SMART's policy is to close and consolidate as many private rail crossings as possible, Stogner said. That can be a controversial mandate, given that some of the crossings are used by farmers to transport equipment.
Even at public, marked crossings, people tend to try to beat the train, usually not realizing how long it takes a rolling freight engine to stop.