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.