The trains are up and rolling through Petaluma at long last, which means residents are urged to cross tracks with caution and obey railroad arms and signals at all rail crossings.
"Safety is our No. 1 concern," said Mitch Stogner, executive director of the North Coast Railroad Authority. "We want everyone to notice and pay attention to those rail arms."
Freight service on the Northwestern Pacific Railroad ended in 2001 when federal transportation regulators halted service on the storm-damaged route. In 2007, the NCRA spent $68 million to repair the 62-mile track between Windsor and Napa. The line remains closed north of Windsor.
The NCRA leases the tracks to a private short-haul rail operator, the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Co. The trains are being used to haul feed grains, wood products, building materials, wine and other merchandise between Sonoma, Marin and Napa counties.
Hunt & Behrens, Dairyman's Feed & Supply and Petaluma Poultry are currently using the freight service for shipping and receiving.
Trains will only run during daylight hours and make one round-trip on the line, three days a week on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Stogner added that 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.
With rail service being absent from the area for a decade, Stogner said that all emergency personnel in the three counties have been briefed on rail safety and there is an ongoing effort to raise public awareness of trains and safety around tracks.
"Law enforcement personnel around the county are going to be riding a locomotive soon to see how it moves through crossings," said Stogner. "Police officers will also start being stationed at crossings to make sure drivers adhere to the crossing arms. Safety is a very important concern for us. There is an ongoing effort to educate the public through Operation Lifesaver."
Operation Lifesaver is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting rail safety. The organization has been giving presentations to cities along the rail corridor to education people about trains.
According to Operation Lifesaver, 95 people were killed by trains last year in California — the highest of any state. Of those fatalities, 29 were at vehicle crossings and 66 were pedestrians. Even though trains will be traveling through Petaluma at 25 mph, a train weighing several thousand pounds is still capable of tearing a vehicle apart.
"There's also an ongoing education effort in schools," said Stogner. "Operations Lifesaver has been out to various schools over the last two years talking about safety and what to watch for with the trains coming back. The NWPR has been engaged in all these activities as well. Safety is number one."
For more information, visit the Operation Lifesaver website at www.oli.org.