Cause of railroad crossing troubles unclear

(Editor's note: Since this article went to press Wednesday morning, another railroad arm malfunction occurred. The incident took place Wednesday afternoon, at approximately 12 p.m. at the crossing at Lakeville and Washington streets. The railroad arms were down for more than an hour. SMART technicians reportedly responded, though calls to SMART regarding the incident were not immediately returned.)

When a car was recently struck by a railroad crossing arm in Petaluma, it joined a list of more than 30 complaints the Petaluma Police Department has received about malfunctioning railroad arms in the last year. Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit — or SMART —and the North Coast Rail Authority now say that they believe they have fixed the issue, though the cause of most of the problems remains unclear.

When Petaluma residents Frank and Barbara Simpson pulled their new Honda CRV up to the intersection of Lakeville and D streets on Nov. 29, they waited for the traffic signal to turn green before entering the intersection. But once they had driven directly under the railroad crossing arms, Barbara Simpson said the red railroad crossing lights started flashing and that the railroad gate immediately dropped on the hood of her vehicle. The freight train passed directly in front of her vehicle moments later, she said.

Although freight trains have been traveling on SMART's tracks north of Highway 37 since the 19th century, North Coast Rail Authority only started running freight lines in Petaluma again about a year and a half ago. North Coast Rail leases the right to operate its freight trains on SMART's tracks and is currently responsible for operating the freight cars safely on the rail line while SMART continues work on its tracks for the future commuter train it plans to debut in 2016. SMART is responsible for the railroad crossing signal and gate operations.

This week, both SMART and the North Coast Rail Authority said that synchronization problems between the traffic signal and the railroad crossing lights and arm contributed to the Simpson incident. The two agencies added that the issue has since been corrected.

"We went out and checked to make sure the lights and the signals were synchronized," said Carolyn Glendening, SMART's community education and outreach coordinator. While not blaming the driver, Glendening said that often drivers are accustomed to their typical driving routines, and do not take the time to properly follow railroad signal changes. She added that SMART will work more on educating the public about proper train crossing safety measures as they prepare for SMART's commuter train launch.

But Barbara Simpson said that she followed proper safety precautions for crossing railroad tracks. "When you're sitting at an intersection and the light turns green, are you supposed to sit there and wait some more for something that's not there?" she asked.

While the Simpsons' incident is the first railroad accident to occur in Petaluma since the tracks became active with freight trains, there have been many other incidents of Petaluma railroad crossing arms malfunctioning during the last year. They have mostly consisted of arms going down for long periods of time, seemingly at random, with no trains in the vicinity.

Petaluma Police Lt. Tim Lyons said that his department began receiving so many reports about the problem that they designated a specific category of calls to track the complaints. From Jan.1 through Dec. 14, the Police Department had taken 34 calls for malfunctioning railroad crossing arms.

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