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Rail transport through Petaluma to begin in April


If you have been surprised by trains passing through Petaluma in recent months, get used to it. It's a sight that will become much more familiar as freight rail service resumes in April after more than a decade-long break.

By mid-April, freight trains carrying wine, animal feed, construction materials and other goods are expected to start running the 62-mile Northwestern Pacific Railroad route between Napa and Windsor.

While freight rail service will return next month, SMART rails are set to come through town in 2014 on the same tracks. In anticipation of both services starting up, city workers have been busy making sure the tracks and crossings are safe and the public is prepared.

"The city has been working with the North Coast Railroad Authority staff in regards to updating railroad crossings at intersections," said city engineer Curt Bates.

Trains have made test runs on the tracks over the past few months and workers have inspected rail ties and other parts of the rail system. Petaluma has eight rail crossings throughout town that have been updated with new crossing arms, rail and signal controls, and traffic signal timing.

The diesel trains will be as long as 15 cars, run at speeds of between 25 and 40 miles per hour, and make about three round trips per week on the line.

Meanwhile, residents are getting used to the idea of trains running through town for the first time since 2001.

"I love the sound of a train, it will make Petaluma sound more historic," said Linda Odetto, whose family lives in west Petaluma.

Odetto said that she is not concerned by any noise or traffic issues "as long as it's not like a superhighway."

City workers estimate that the average wait for traffic at railroad crossings will be two to three minutes.

Amber Balshaw, born and raised in Petaluma, said she remembers when trains came through town before.

"It's the small-town feel of it," said Balshaw, who said that the sound and traffic issues do not concern her. "That's what makes Petaluma."

"Our business is literally a block from the railroad tracks," added Balshaw, who is the chef and owner of Preferred Sonoma Caterers. "I don't really think it will hinder anything."

Still, the city has taken some precautions to ensure safety around the tracks. Last year, representatives from Operation Lifesaver, a nationwide nonprofit focused on rail safety education, made a presentation to the City Council on how to best avoid accidents.

"We do want to have an outreach as best we can to the public," said Mitch Stogner, executive director of the North Coast Rail Authority, a state agency that oversees rail infrastructure locally.

Stogner said that the long process of resuming rail service is finally reaching its end. The Northwestern Pacific line closed in 2001 due to storm damage. The rail authority has used about $50 million in state funds for repairs on the southern end of the line over the past few years. In the final steps, the organization needs federal approval to lift an emergency order and must work out an agreement with SMART to regulate freight and commuter uses on the line.

"The Federal Railroad Administration has to certify that the tracks are indeed in good condition for freight service," said Stogner. "We're just waiting to hear hopefully in the next week or two if the emergency order is lifted so we can start to run trains."