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.

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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