SMART explains railroad issues

Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit this week provided more specifics into the ongoing railroad arm malfunctions that have snarled traffic around town during the past year, saying the problems are primarily due to vandalism.? SMART added that they are working to fix the problems.

Last week, responding to news reports that a railroad arm had closed on top of a resident's car, SMART said it had fixed that particular problem, and attributed it to a synchronization issue between the city's traffic lights and the train's railroad arm signals.

Then, on Dec. 19, another railroad arm malfunction occurred at the crossing on Lakeville and Washington streets, when the railroad arms went down for more than an hour, causing significant traffic congestion in the downtown area.?The incident marked the 28th Petaluma railroad crossing malfunction reported to SMART in 2012. ?

Carolyn Glendening, SMART's community education and outreach coordinator, said Friday that 10 of the 28 Petaluma incidents were caused by vandalism or tampering with the older tracks.? She said that vandalism sometimes occurs because people are trying to steal copper wiring that connects segments of the track together. ?

Glendening pointed out that most crossings have a safety feature designed to lower the crossing gates if the track or signals have been tampered with. Once triggered, the arms stay down until a signal technician arrives on site to reset the system or replace any damaged components, she said.?

One solution that SMART is working on is to replace the old rail with continuous, welded steel rail, which will drastically minimize the amount of copper on the tracks and the opportunity for vandals to tamper, according to Glendening.

But the downtown malfunction on Dec. 19 was not the result of vandalism or track tampering. Instead, SMART officials said that an electronic component failed at the crossing and had to be replaced by technicians.?According to Petaluma Police, the incident occurred at approximately 12 p.m. and backed up traffic from Lakeville Street, along Washington Street, up to Petaluma Boulevard North for approximately an hour and a half. ?

Lt. Tim Lyons said that while the crossing arms were down, one officer directed traffic.? "It's hard on our resources," said Lyons.? "When we have an officer committed that long to one location, it decreases our manpower and it affects response time for emergency personnel."

Lyons added that the SMART technician took over an hour to arrive on scene.? He said that when police first arrived and called SMART, they were told a technician would arrive within 20 minutes.?The technician did not arrive until one hour and twelve minutes had passed, Lyons said.

When asked why it had taken so long for a technician to arrive, Glendening said that technicians are currently working out in the field, all along the tracks, and that service calls are answered by the nearest available technician. ?

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