By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
After being derailed for 12 years, freight trains could begin rumbling through Santa Rosa by next month, and city officials want to make sure residents are ready.
The long lapse in service means many people aren’t used to locomotives lumbering along the tracks, and officials don’t want any surprises.
“It’s safe to say most of us aren’t aware of trains or as familiar with trains as we should be, so that’s one of our concerns,” Tony Gossner, division chief for the Santa Rosa Fire Department, told the City Council on Tuesday.
There hasn’t been freight service on the former Northwestern Pacific Railroad since 1998, when federal regulators shut the lines. The North Coast Railroad Authority has spent $68 million in state and federal funds repairing 62 miles of track between Windsor and Napa. If they get the OK from federal inspectors, trains could return by mid-April, said Mitch Stogner, executive director of the North Coast Railroad Authority.
In the first year, trains of 15 to 20 cars are expected to run three round-trips a week. They are expected to carry grain, aggregate, timber or other bulk material, said John Williams, president of Northwestern Pacific Co., the company ready to run freight service on the line. Trains will run at about 25 mph, he said. As business grows, trains could grow to up to 60 cars in length, Williams said.
Various city departments are poised to reach out to the community to make sure that homeless people, pedestrians and motorists are aware the trains are returning and to take precautions.
“One of the safety concerns that we all share is that because trains haven’t been around for a while, there are a lot of people that use train tracks as a right of way,” Gossner said.
Crossings are a key concern. There are 11 places in the city where roads cross the tracks. Motorists will have to get used to waiting between one minute and three minutes for trains to pass, Williams said.
Overall, the restoration of service could provide an economic boost for the city, said Mayor Ernesto Olivares.
“I can’t help but think that this is going to be overall a good economic thing for our community as far as moving goods and services,” he said.
There are two industrial areas of the city — one on Coffey Lane and one on Dutton Avenue — where spur lines exist, said Frank Kasimov, program specialist in the city’s economic development department.
These locations could allow trains to pull off the main tracks to be efficiently loaded or unloaded.
In addition, there is the potential for a “transload” spur north of the city that might allow other businesses in the city to load cargo on and off trains, he said.
The wine industry currently ships thousands of cases of wine by truck to American Canyon, where it is transferred to rail cars, said Doug Bosco, a Santa Rosa attorney and former congressman who was responsible for securing the federal funding that helped repair the line.
Standard Structures in Windsor is another type of company that could benefit. It has the ability to construct 120-foot high towers for electrical transmission lines. Those structures are too large to be moved on trucks, but can be moved by rail, Bosco said.
“It’ll really open up that sort of opportunity for local people,” said Bosco said.