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Barreling along a track south of Petaluma at a top speed of 79 mph this week, a two-car Sonoma- Marin Area Rail Transit train moved with surprising grace for machinery weighing 160 tons.

Outside picture windows in the passenger cabins, an autumn evening enveloped the landscape, the setting sun casting a fading glow on marshlands east of the tracks.

Nearing Novato, where the rail line pulls alongside Highway 101, the gray-and-green train cars whizzed by vehicles inching along in rush-hour traffic.

The test journey was emblematic of what supporters say the rail service could one day offer — a swift, smooth and safe alternative for the North Bay’s commuting motorists. Probably more than a few who were stuck bumper-to-bumper in the Novato Narrows on Tuesday looked upon the train with longing as it rocketed by.

“I’d like to wrap a sign around it that says, ‘You could be on the train right now,’ ” Matt Stevens, a spokesman for SMART, said during the ride.

To what degree the public embraces the rail service won’t really be known, however, until after its debut, currently set for late next year. The rail authority estimates 5,000 riders a day will use the service and has planned to operate trains every half-hour during peak commute times, in addition to a midday train and weekend service.

The initial 42-mile route runs from downtown San Rafael to near the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.

Stevens said SMART officials aren’t concerned about achieving projected ridership levels, but with having enough trains to meet unforeseen demand.

For now, the test runs the rail agency is making along Highway 101 in the area of Olompali State Historic Park north to the Redwood Landfill overpass offer the best sense of what it will be like to ride a SMART train.

This week, Japanese rail engineers from manufacturer Nippon Sharyo joined their counterparts from SMART aboard the two rail cars for speed and brake testing. SMART is planning to operate seven two-car units along the route, with officials saying it will take under an hour to traverse.

To simulate stopping the trains under slippery track conditions, engineers pumped soapy water from garbage bins inside the main cabins onto the tracks via hoses running beneath the train’s undercarriage.

Simultaneously, sand was dropped mechanically beneath the wheels to prevent them from locking up, a concept similar to a car’s anti-lock brakes. The sand system is a standard feature on the rail cars.

It takes the train about 2.5 miles to rev up to 79 mph, and under a mile to stop at that speed under ideal conditions.

The Japanese engineers let out a celebratory yell when the train slowed and then slid briefly to a smooth stop during one of the start-and-stop runs.

Each car has 79 seats, with standing room available for about 80 people. The cars will also feature space for bikes, Wi-Fi service and, in some cases, snack and beverage bars, including beer and wine sales. Alas, that amenity was not available this week.

The rail service originally was envisioned to run from Cloverdale to the Larkspur ferry terminal but because of funding shortfalls has been scaled back.

On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a $300 billion highway bill that maintains funding for the planned extension of the line from San Rafael to the Larkspur ferry terminal, officials said.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

“At this point, we are in a strong position,” said Farhad Mansourian, general manager of the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit Authority.

SMART is seeking $20 million to complete the Larkspur link.

Whether the agency succeeds in getting that money comes down to negotiations between the House and Senate, which passed its own version of a highway bill earlier this year.

The Larkspur project is one of 14 nationally recommended for funding by the Federal Transit Administration through its New Starts Program.

The rail agency’s board of directors on Wednesday was briefed on the security features of the train cars during a unique closed-door session held on board the train.

The trains are equipped with positive train control that automatically monitors speed and brings the vehicle to a halt if traveling too fast, said Lisa Cobb, SMART’s systems and vehicle manager.

That wasn’t a problem Tuesday, as engineer Matt Shiffrar brought the train to a smooth stop beneath the Atherton Avenue overpass of Highway 101 near the site of a planned station.

“Well, how was it?” asked a man who had stopped riding his bicycle to watch the train pull in.

“Smooth,” Stevens said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore @pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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