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Inching Closer to Freight Rail Service in Novato

A locomotive and two boxcars creep through the city on a run to load test bridges; Novato City Council plans to vote on rail contract July 12.

People lined up to take photos Friday when they heard a freight train was heading through Novato — a rare sight since the tracks were declared unusable by the federal government 13 years ago. The green light has been given again as federal authorities this spring OK’d the through several North Bay counties.

At about 12:45 p.m., a locomotive with two boxcars crawled through Old Town in a preview for what could be a common site as soon as July 13. The train’s engineer even snapped photos of the small crowd.

It wasn’t the real thing per se. Friday’s run was to test load limits on the bridges between the Petaluma River and downtown Petaluma, said executive director Mitch Stogner of the North Coast Railroad Authority, which oversees the tracks.

“This was just a continuation of the testing we’ve been doing,” he said. “Each bridge has to be able to handle at least 286,000 pounds.”

The train slowed down at every bridge and three technicians exited with their clipboards and climbed on top and under every bridge to watch as the engineer slowly guided the train across the bridge. Once safely across the bridge, the technicians hopped back on and off they went northward to Petaluma.

The Novato City Council still needs to approve conditions for the private short-haul rail operator NWP Co. to transport goods between Napa and Windsor via the tracks that run through Black Point, Ignacio and downtown Novato. That approval is expected to come at the July 12 meeting of the Novato City Council, and NWP Co. could start hauling by the next day, Stogner said.

Stogner said he was told the Novato City Council would discuss it at the June 28 meeting, but it was bumped to July 12.

“There was some disappointment about that, but we’re told all is well and the trains could run the next day,” he said.

NWP will start with limited service — probably just one train per week with a maximum of 15 cars, Stogner said — and then slowly ramp up to three roundtrips per week between Napa and Windsor.

Vehicular, bike and pedestrian traffic will be affected at several crossings in Novato, including Grant and Olive avenues in the Old Town area.

On June 15, the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit approved an agreement to share the track with NCRA between Novato and Windsor. On June 20, NCRA chairman Hal Wagenet said the NCRA and NWP Co. agreed to all of Novato’s requested changes to a 2008 lawsuit settlement and is confident that the Novato City Council will allow the trains to roll.

NCRA’s June 20 moves included the approval of its environmental impact report, its joint operating agreement with SMART and an agreement with Novato to install “quiet zones” and run trains slowly through Novato’s downtown.

The news release reiterated its earlier statements that NCRA has invested more than $60 million since 2007 to repair 56 crossing signals, replace 50,000 crossties and 23 tons of ballast, shore up levees near Schellville in Sonoma County, and repair 43 trestles and rail bridges between Windsor and the connection with the Union Pacific rail system south of Napa (Napa Junction/Lombard).

John Williams of the NWP Co. has said he intends to operate three round-trips per week hauling feed grains, wood products, building materials, wine and other general merchandise during the start-up phase between Napa and Windsor.

On May 5, the Federal Railroad Administration gave permission to reopen the line it ordered closed in 1998 due to safety concerns.

Joe Gallagher June 28, 2011 at 10:52 PM
I walked the tracks from Novato Community Hospital to under the freeway. The track repair work (if any) is poor! It looked like a TRAIN WRECK to me!! There are rotten railroad ties, missing shoe plates, and missing spikes. If this is any example in this short distance of the rest of the line, and freight trains were to use these tracks, it could be an accident waiting to happen.
Robert J. Cleek June 29, 2011 at 12:17 AM
That track belongs to SMART. NCRA has been repaired it for freight use and it's been inspected to fully meet federal standards for the type of traffic the NWPRR Co. will be running on it. It is not intended for, nor certified for, higher speed rail traffic. It is supposedly all to be replaced with state of the art materials when SMART upgrades.
David Blanke July 08, 2011 at 12:23 AM
Joe Gallagher of Novato - Get a life.

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