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Occasional public test rides are planned in the coming months, with free daily rides beginning in September to practice the 43-mile route from Santa Rosa’s Airport Boulevard station to downtown San Rafael. Regular service is expected to begin later this year. Go to SMART’s Facebook page for a chance to participate in a test ride.

More than 100 people took their first ride on the North Bay’s new passenger rail line Saturday as a packed SMART train passed alongside Sonoma County vineyards, dairy farms and tidal wetlands before turning around south of the new Petaluma River bridge.

“Choo choo,” said 4-year-old Oliver Wagner, mimicking the train’s horn as it departed from the Cotati station for the morning trip.

The hourlong tour, from Cotati south to the Sonoma-Marin County line, was the second in a series of public test rides planned in the coming months — outings aimed at gathering feedback and reinforcing rail safety rules such as alerting motorists to never stop on the tracks or try to beat a train.

The series of test rides, available for sign-up through Facebook, is especially important because the debut of paid service later this year marks the first time in nearly 60 years the North Bay will be served by a passenger rail, said Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager.

“It’s been a very long road, so when you see all these smiles and all this excitement, it’s like ‘Wow,’” Mansourian said, as he peppered families and other groups of people with questions during Saturday’s ride. “We’re still doing all of our testing. Every one of these trips is teaching us something new.”

The green and gold diesel train sped along at 59 mph as passengers looked out broad windows, many pointing out sights — oak woodlands, wetlands filled with birds — that are not as visible along Highway 101, the region’s main transportation artery. At full speed, the train will reach 79 mph.

“It’s fabulous,” said Jason Weber, who with his wife, Brianna, brought their four kids on the trip. “These are views we don’t normally get to see. The kids are loving it.”

The train traveled through Penngrove and Petaluma, passing the downtown stop expected to draw more tourists to local establishments.

Peter Stetson of Napa said he and his family would likely ride the train for recreational trips. “I’m just thrilled,” Stetson said. “I love it. It’s super smooth.”

At full staff, SMART is expected to have 21 engineers to operate the service, which will feature trains every half-hour during peak commute times, in addition to a midday train and weekend service on the initial 43-mile route between Santa Rosa and San Rafael.

In their first family outing on SMART, Janet Spilman and David Bergum of Santa Rosa, said they were excited for twhe chance to get out of their cars.

“We have so many people who commute between Marin and Sonoma counties … 101 is always busy,” said Spilman, who is also director of planning for the Sonoma County Transportation Authority. “This is just fantastic.”

Many on board said they await the train’s extension to Windsor and Cloverdale, a northern Sonoma County segment that is planned “some time” in the future, according to SMART officials.

The agency originally envisioned a 70-mile route from Cloverdale to Larkspur. The startup route, with a cost of $450 million, extends from Airport Boulevard north of Santa Rosa to downtown San Rafael.

The agency is seeking up to $38 million in state cap-and-trade funds to extend service 3 miles north to Windsor by early 2020.

The resumption of passenger rail service has not been entirely smooth since 2008, when voters in Sonoma and Marin counties approved a sales tax measure to fund the line. A sharp drop in tax revenue accompanying the recession and failed bid by SMART opponents to put a referendum before voters were both significant challenges.

Mansourian acknowledged that turmoil and compared SMART’s development to other complex Bay Area infrastructure projects, including the Golden Gate Bridge and Bay Area Rapid Transit.

“Every major public works project historically has had a very large group of supporters, and a small group of opponents,” Mansourian said. “Look at BART — Sonoma and Marin counties voted against it. But people here now realize that 101 is a total parking lot.”

A series of public test rides is planned in the coming months.

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com.

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