Novato Approves Freight Train Service

Five cars to be pulled through Novato on Wednesday on first non-training rail run since 1998.

The last legal railroad tie has been laid under the track, and now freight trains can run through the Novato city limits for the first time since 1998.

The first train? Expect it to thunder through downtown Novato at about 25 mph sometime mid-day Wednesday — a locomotive pulling five cars full of grain destined for Petaluma.

“It’s a reasonable and responsible agreement for both sides,” said John Williams, owner of Northwest Pacific Railroad Company.

By a 3-2 vote, the Novato City Council on Tuesday approved a deal for safety improvements at 13 railroad crossings and the establishment of quiet zones near homes so it is not a nightmarish experience to live close to the tracks. The vote approved an amendment to the 2008 consent decree between the city, the North Coast Railroad Authority and Northwest Pacific, and it was the last legal hurdle to allowing the freight trains to run between Napa, Novato and Windsor.

Trains have been testing the tracks and bridges for months along the 17 miles of track between the Petaluma River, Ignacio and Novato’s northern boundary, but now the railroad company can operate up to three roundtrips per week as long as speeds are kept to 25 mph.

Mitch Stogner of the North Coast Railroad Authority said he expects Northwest Pacific to have a slow ramp-up of service in the first 30 to 60 days as crews get acclimated to the routines. At full capacity, locomotives can pull as many as 18 boxcars.

Mayor Madeline Kellner and Councilwomen Denise Athas and Jeanne MacLeamy voted in favor of the consent decree amendment. Councilwomen Carole Dillon-Knutson and Pat Eklund were opposed because of noise concerns by unwelded tracks east of the Novato city limits. They said residents of Bel Marin Keys, Green Point, Black Point and the StoneTree development might be adversely affected by the “click-clack” of the trains.

Dillon-Knutson called the railroad operators “arrogant” and said, “They haven’t proven to me that they are doing their best to protect our residents and protect us from noise in our community.”

Representatives of the train companies said Highway 37, which runs parallel to the rail lines east of the city, generates more noise than the trains would. Jason Nutt, Novato’s director of public works, said the trains would roll along at about 10 mph through the Black Point area because of the operation of the swing bridge trains use to get across the Petaluma River.

Improvements at 13 crossings in and around Novato are expected to start in the next six to 12 months, Nutt said. They will included landscaping, fencing and other measures to prevent trespassing on the tracks, plus efforts to reduce light glare from trains that run at night.

Nutt said a state agency called Operation Lifesaver help with education about “what it’s like to have trains running through town again.” The agency works with residents, school children, city staff members and anybody that needs a refresher court on railroad crossings and safety-related subjects pertaining to train operation.

The north-south portion of the railroad tracks are the same ones slated for use by 2014 by Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit, a controversial commuter rail line. SMART owns the tracks, which are leased by the NCRA.

The federal goverment approved freight use on the tracks in May, and the Novato agreement was the final step in allowing the trains to run.

For another account of this meeting, see the Santa Rosa Press Democrat story by clicking here.

For Wednesday coverage of the train running for the first time, see this Marin Independent Journal story by clicking here.

Lloyd July 13, 2011 at 02:00 PM
Well I think the City Council (most of them) got it right. I used to live in BMK and highway 37 was my backyard and the train was always there and never a problem. Freight rail takes four trucks off the highway 101 for every train car and it is way cheaper for the dairy industry which should hopefully mean a break for all of us. Anyone who lives near or next to train tracks always knew there was the chance of a train chugging through.
Bob Schram July 13, 2011 at 02:01 PM
We think it is great as living on the East side of the tracks by Railroad/Olive area and the click clack of unwelded seams is just fine too! Take some of the truck traffic off 101 too!
Henry Markwart July 13, 2011 at 02:43 PM
The railroad is a good thing. I will never understand all the whining about it starting service again. The railroad was here about a hundred years before most of us.
Sam Roth July 13, 2011 at 02:45 PM
Excellent. My son will love it. He's a railfan.
K Goldstein July 13, 2011 at 03:16 PM
I think it's a great idea can't understand why they stopped using them - it takes some of the big trucks off 101. Congratulations the government got one thing right by bringing the trains back!!
Robert B July 13, 2011 at 03:34 PM
Where is the grain loaded onto the boxcars?
Brent Ainsworth (Editor) July 13, 2011 at 03:49 PM
I believe the loading is done in Lombard, an area just southwest of downtown Napa.
Anamaria Hunter July 13, 2011 at 04:11 PM
I grew up with trains and a tunnel in my backyard in southern marin and loved it. I am really looking foward to sharing this with my grandsons!
Ross Ingels July 13, 2011 at 04:43 PM
So let me get this straight. Elklund and Dillon-Knutson voted no because of how they perceive it will affect residents in Black Point, Green Point and Bel Marin Keys which are not even in the City of Novato. Yet when it comes to low income housing in the middle of their city they are all for it? I don't understand.
Phil Maher July 13, 2011 at 05:07 PM
I personally find Carole Dillon-Knutson's characterization of NCRA owners as "arrogant" laughable. This coming from a SMART commissioner? In light of the hubris they've clearly demonstrated for years? It's as though she mentally cataloged the word that's generally used to accurately characterize the attitudes of her and her peers in the hopes of being able to label someone else with it for a change. Even more so, her misplaced concerns over "safety issues" from an occasional freight train traveling at 25mph vs the frequency of passing commuter trains are ill-founded. I realize that it's hard to apply the same measures of prudence to one's own pet project, but the shear trip numbers between the two forms of rail traffic don't even begin to statistically bear this assumption out. Freight is what this single track system is best suited for, not frequent two-way commuting, and it's high time we recognized that fact and used this asset for what it's always been meant for in the most appropriate and efficient manner possible. Run the freight trains, and keep those glorified buses out of their way.
Clark A. Blasdell July 13, 2011 at 06:03 PM
Brent, Great report about a good result of at least a 3-2 decision for restoring rail service through Novato from places near and far .. and beginning with grain, a staple of life .. so poetic and prudent .. things are looking up in Novato .. and folks should begin looking both up and down the tracks whenever they think about crossing (especially since we're trying to silence the rolling trains' clickety-clack and whistles .. I grew up in a railroad family and lived right next to the Santa Fe tracks in west Berkeley for several years . I love the trains better sounds and fuel efficiencies than airplanes: props or jets ..
Michael Deutch July 13, 2011 at 06:06 PM
Where can we see a map of the tracks that will be used?
Edwin Drake July 13, 2011 at 07:06 PM
Can I get a job carrying a red lantern in front of the freight train to warn cows and people off the tracks?
Bob Ratto July 13, 2011 at 07:17 PM
Are you trying to get practice for the SMART train? Maybe you can get a new WalMart built at North Redwood, work as a greeter, then work your way up into a lantern waving position. And at the end of the route, you can go to your new TOD, thinking of all those you have helped! Too Funny!
Robert J. Cleek July 13, 2011 at 07:45 PM
http://northcoastrailroad.org/map.html For most all Novatans, you won't encounter trains in town anywhere except at the grade crossings at the foot of Grant Avenue and at the intersection of Railroad and Olive Avenues. BTW, for the edification of the two "nay" votes on the city council, most all of the rail in the Novato area is already welded, so there never was going to be any "clickety-clack" in the first place. I wonder why the city is worrying about "light glare from trains that run at night." AFAIK, the city already extorted a concession from these "arrogant" operators that the trains would not run at night, lest somebody (there's always one) complain about "noise." Like many, I have lived in Green Point when the trains were running full bore and NEVER heard them once. The roar from the freeway was quite another matter, though. The really rich comment, though, was Dillon-Knutson's calling the NWPRR "arrogant." Everything the railroad has done to accommodate the city council's litigious crazyness was pure good will. The railroad never had to make any of the expensive accommodations they have made. The bottom line is that federal railroad law essentially trumps anything Novato or any other local agency might say or do. It's called the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution and local governments have nothing to say about interstate commerce.
Phil Maher July 13, 2011 at 08:04 PM
Saving cows and helping people find the newest iPod are noble endeavors, and from what I understand, you're then fully qualified to serve on the SMART Board.
Bob Ratto July 13, 2011 at 08:11 PM
Edwin can serve since he wants to save the cows, which can then be leveraged into a new red lantern, which will have approximately the same relevance to one's commute as the stupid for nearly all train.
Phil Maher July 13, 2011 at 08:21 PM
but I forgot to add....as long as you have some money they can borrow and are good at saying "Mooove out of the way, there's a train a comin' through...and it aint a stoppin' for nobody."
Mark Drury July 13, 2011 at 08:36 PM
Some excellent photos and video of the recent NWP train movements (including the six-car train from today) may be found here: http://nwprr.net
david kurland July 13, 2011 at 08:40 PM
Just wait till the first child, homeless person, stuck automobile gets hit by the 19th Century technology. Novatians will get ZIP but "interests"... you know the ones that supply the election cash... will be the only ones to win.
Edwin Drake July 13, 2011 at 10:08 PM
I'm polishing up the lantern now; can't wait for that Wal-Mart and that fancy blue vest. I'd like to know the "profit" to NPRC on this load of grain. Is there really that much freight traveling between Lombard and Petaluma? I'm OK with the train, just don't see how this works, even with a deep water freight harbor in Eureka (is that right?). Also, it'd be great if the railroad put big signs on the car sides telling all us onlookers what's inside. Plus, can anyone say "trash to Utah?"
Joe Gallagher July 14, 2011 at 02:23 AM
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.
Joe Gallagher July 14, 2011 at 02:26 AM
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.
Mike Pechner July 14, 2011 at 02:33 AM
I hope the two dissenting folks from the Silly Council see the above comments. Seems there are no dissenters from the above comments. Just curious, since the Council IS so concerned about a few freight trains and the emissions and noise, are they NOW going to legislate the noisy, smelly truck traffic on 101? I can answer that, of course not because the legally can't. They have NO jurisdiction over Interstate Commerce. The CAT is out of the bag because operation of the Freight train is a Federal matter with the jurisdiction lying exclusively with the FRA and STB. They can't stop it now if they wanted! Once service is established, the City Council can't do anything about it.The only reason NCRA signed the consent decree was to be GOOD neighbors. The "safety" issue from Councilwoman Knuston is pure and utter B.S. The ONLY safety issue is idiot drivers running the crossing signals and running into the train! I grew up in Novato and lived there for many years when 6 trains a day with 100 car trains rolled through town and NO ONE, either residents or City Council folks EVER said anything about the railroad. So the train DIDN'T run for ten years and NOW they try to stop it. Just goes to show you that you don't have to pass an I.Q. test to be on the silly council. The City spent taxpayer money and saddled the rest of the fees on the railroad. Excellent report by Brent Ainsworth. Someone asked where the feed and grains was loaded? Probably Kansas or Nebraska.
Edwin Drake July 14, 2011 at 02:36 AM
Maybe Novato can have a "Hop a Freight" festival! Yours truly - Hobo Edwin
Bob Ratto July 14, 2011 at 04:15 AM
I missed today's train. Not good on my part. Yes, railroads have massive power by statute, a lot of which should maybe be corrected. I think the city was simply trying to enforce an agreement that was previously made...as far as clickety clack...but Dillon-Knutson (who seems to be a very nice person) calling the railroad arrogant was pretty harsh..
Kathie DiMarco July 18, 2011 at 05:34 AM
Just remember that there will be eighteen cars running through Olive Ave and Grant at one time during the day eventually. The gates must go down for both locations almost simultaneously and stay down till well past the last car and caboose go by. When they run through town they must give a warning whistle which will be heard by all the houses within a certain distance. Only people who live near those tracks by Olive and Grant will be affected. Everyone else in Novato will not hear of or be stopped by the gates for a minimum of five minutes till the gates go up again after the train has passed. So Dillon-Knutson does know something of what she is talking about. Personally I love the sounds but i live much farther away from the tracks than the apartments on the corner of Olive and Railway and the new houses built on the Hanna Ranch property and the condos above Whole Foods etc.
Tom Gill August 27, 2011 at 03:19 AM
What is the schedule and where is the best place to watch the train go by in Novato? I'm thinking Grant Ave.? Always liked trains and would like to see this. I can hear them from my house near Novato HS.


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