Pretty soon, residents along the train tracks in Novato could hear the chugging of locomotives, the tooting of warning whistles and the clanging of crossing alarms. Maybe kids will be placing pennies on the tracks again, just like the old days.
Using the same tracks slated for use by 2014 by a controversial commuter rail line, freight trains will be running through Novato by mid-June pending approvals from the city of Novato and the local passenger rail board, according to the freight rail authority that has been working for years to use the tracks since they were deemed unusable in 1998.
North Coast Railroad Authority Chairman, Hal Wagenet announced in a press release that the Federal Railroad Administration has given the green light to restart freight service on the historic Northwestern Pacific rail line between Brazos Junction near Napa and the Sonoma County town of Windsor.
The tracks make an L-shaped route through Novato, starting at the Petaluma River and the Black Point area and heading due west along Highway 37 then north past the Novato Community Hospital, Old Town Novato and the Fireman’s Fund Insurance headquarters off San Marin Drive.
“I’m thrilled it will be running again,” said Dea Belrose, who one house away from the tracks in Black Point. “We have missed it and would love to see it back again.”
“The North Coast is going to join the rest of the country and the 21st century with efficient freight rail service,” said Jerry Peters, a Novato resident and train advocate. “The railroads in the U.S. now have something like 30 percent of the traffic they had when they were at their peak in the 1920s, but they’re doing it far more efficiently now. As gas prices inch up, it’s going to be more and more efficient.”
In a published order signed by Federal Railroad Administration Administrator, Joseph C. Szabo, the FRA said it was partially lifting the Emergency Order 21 that stopped all train service on the North Coast in 1998 following a series of El Nino storms. FRA’s announcement allows for freight service on a 62-mile stretch of railroad from Brazos Junction east to Highway 101 in Novato, and extending north along 101 through the cities of Petaluma, Cotati, Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa and Windsor.
The tracks are eligible to be used immediately, but the North Coast Railroad Authority said will be mid-June before trains run regularly. Still needed are approval from the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit Board and the city of Novato.
The NCRA said in the release that it has invested more than $60 million since 2007 to repair 56 crossing signals, replace 50,000 crossties and 23,000 tons of ballast, shore-up levees in Schellville, repair 43 rail bridges and three movable bridges that traverse the Napa and Petaluma rivers between Windsor and the train connection with the Union Pacific (Brazos Junction/Lombard) south of Napa.
NCRA leases the track to NWP Co., a private short-haul rail operator. According to NWP Co. President John Williams, trains will make three round-trips per week hauling feed grains, wood products, building materials, wine and other general merchandise during the start-up phase.
Wagenet said the NCRA is planning to certify a $3 million environmental impact report in June that evaluates the effects of train operations on the Russian River Division of the line between Brazos Junction and Willits. NCRA also must finalize agreements with SMART and the city of Novato prior to start-up of train operations.
Wagenet said the impacts from the return of freight trains are overwhelmingly positive. One freight car will remove four trucks from Highway 101 through the affected areas, and one gallon of diesel fuel will move a ton of freight over 400 miles, according to NCRA statistics.
“Freight trains boost the local economy, are good for the environment, and good energy policy,” Wagenet said.