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SMART train testing underway south of Petaluma

Pointed down a narrow line separating sun-drenched wetlands from a high-traffic stretch of Highway 101, DeAndre Bess grabbed the throttle on the control console. Eyes straight ahead, he uttered the countdown.

“Three ... two ... one. Full power,” he said.

As Japanese rail engineers from manufacturer Nippon Sharyo huddled over a cluster of laptops showing readings from sensors all over the vehicle, the two-car train for the forthcoming Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit system accelerated smoothly down a stretch of uninterrupted rail near the Redwood Landfill just south of Petaluma last week. At 50 mph, it was the fastest a SMART train had traveled to date, a precursor to the 79 mph test to come in the next few days.

Engineers spent the day tweaking the software that controls the diesel-powered train’s braking systems, finding a balance between power and smoothness that will be calibrated for each of the 14 built-to-order cars that are expected to operate on the the 43-mile system when it opens for business by the end of 2016.

Racing by the windows was a stretch of scenery that stands to be a jewel of the SMART corridor, a nearly inaccessible stretch of open wetlands between Petaluma and Novato that will become a familiar backdrop for rail commuters in the years to come. It includes 60 acres of land that SMART purchased to restore as an offset to the project’s environmental impact, which General Manager Farhad Mansourian said came with some aesthetic benefits.

“By getting this first piece, we got a full, continuous view to the bay,” he said.

Those remote conditions also make it an ideal testing ground, said Lisa Cobb, SMART’s systems and vehicle manager.

“This beautiful area is where we’re going to go really fast,” she said.

Drivers stuck in gridlock along the Narrows portion of Highway 101 will increasingly have a front-row seat as the green-and-gray SMART trains undergo testing along that track in the coming months, the latest phase for the system that aims to provide commuters another option to the traffic-clogged roadway.

Cobb noted that the braking action - a combination of disc and tread-brake systems - was a little unrefined during the first few tests, as engineers were programming adjustments to the train’s systems in real time.

“Safety first, and smooth second,” she said.

Still, the sleek car glided along the tracks, giving a sense of what passenger rail will be like for commuters when it returns to the North Bay after a nearly 60-year hiatus. The spacious cars feature a smattering of electrical outlets, Wi-Fi and a service bar.

When operational, weekday service is currently planned to operate for a four-hour block in the morning and evening hours. Weekend service schedules are still being developed, Mansourian said.

Earlier this month, SMART celebrated a slower-speed milestone in its first crossing of a new drawbridge over the Petaluma River, considered the single most challenging engineering hurdle of the route. The onset of more advanced testing of the trains themselves marked “more excitement,” Mansourian said.

A web of wiring snaked throughout the cabin of the rear car, delivering information from various train systems to the Nippon Sharyo technicians. In contrast to the decidedly high-tech scene was a duo of nearby plastic garbage bins filled with soapy water that dribbled, through hoses, onto the tracks to induce slippery conditions that would challenge the train’s anti-lock brake systems, Cobb said.

At a full 79 mph, Cobb said the trains were designed to be able to stop within 5,000 feet, even if some braking systems were to fail. If all went according to plan, it’s likely the train could stop in a shorter distance.

The trains will be among a new generation of passenger rail systems in the United States built from the ground-up with so-called positive train control, a now mandatory system for rail that automatically monitors train speed and brings the vehicle to a halt if traveling too fast, she said.

A station platform currently under construction in San Rafael is the first of 10 stations that will be built in the coming months, culminating with a current northern terminus at Santa Rosa’s Airport Boulevard. SMART is expected to begin testing its payment system in the summer of 2016, which will clear the way to request approval to operate from the Federal Railroad Administration, said agency spokesman Matt Stevens.

Petaluma is set to have one station when SMART begins operating, located near the city’s downtown. A second station is planned on the east side of the city as part of a future expansion on the system, with locations under consideration at Corona Road and Old Redwood Highway.

SMART is planned to one day span from Cloverdale to the Larkspur Ferry Terminal, segments that are on hold due to a lack of construction funds. Yet there is momentum behind the Larkspur extension, with a $20 million line item currently included in President Obama’s budget that is pending Congressional approval.

Yet even with that section, SMART projects that the majority of passenger trips will be within the initial operating segment between Santa Rosa and San Rafael, where commuters could use the system as an alternative to Highway 101.

“It’s your call. Drink a latte, relax, have Wi-Fi, or sit in traffic on 101,” Mansourian said.

(Contact Eric Gneckow at eric.gneckow@arguscourier.com. On Twitter @Eric_Reports.)

ONLINE: See a video and gallery of photos from onboard the SMART train at petaluma360.com

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