Freight trains back in the North Bay

Freight trains returned to Sonoma County on Wednesday, hauling their first commercial cargo in almost 10 years.

"We've been waiting for this for a long time," said Dan Figone, a partner in Hunt & Behrens, an 80-year-old Petaluma feed mill.

An NWP Co. locomotive rolled into Hunt & Behrens on Wednesday morning pulling five cars of grain. The feed mill expects to get three deliveries a week, Figone said.

The train won't rumble through Santa Rosa until Friday or next Monday, said Jake Park, NWP's general manager. It's scheduled to deliver lumber to Standard Structures, a Windsor wood products manufacturer.

There's been no cargo service on the Northwestern Pacific Railroad since 2001, when federal transportation regulators halted traffic because of storm damage.

In May, the Federal Railroad Administration lifted its embargo, after the North Coast Railroad Authority spent $68 million to repair a 62-mile stretch of track between Windsor and Napa County.

The rail authority has leased the segment to NWP, which will operate the freight service. The line remains closed north of Windsor.

NWP plans to start service with three round trips per week, with trains up to 15 cars.

Motorists can expect delays of a minute or two at signal crossings, said Mitch Stogner, the authority's executive director. There are more than 50 signal crossings on the route, which bisects Novato, Petaluma, Cotati, Rohnert Park and Santa Rosa.

Under federal rules, the trains can reach speeds up to 40 mph, but they'll go slower most of the time, Stogner said.

The Highway Patrol has advised motorists to watch for the trains and obey signals at all crossings.

A nonprofit, Operation Lifesaver, has been making presentations to North Bay schools and community groups about safety around the railroad tracks.

It will take time for NWP to build business, company president John Williams said Wednesday.

"We're a startup," he said. "We have to ramp up."

Trains will start by carrying feed and grain, lumber, wine, aggregate and other heavy commodities. Such cargo already goes by rail, but until now the nearest railhead was in Napa County, he said.

Shippers will save money with NWP because one freight car can carry the same cargo as four trucks, Williams said.

The North Bay freight service will help the economy and take trucks off Highway 101, Stogner said. If successful, it will help the authority win public funding to repair the tracks north to Healdsburg, Cloverdale, Ukiah and Willits, he said.

"We can begin to make our case to the federal government that we are a legitimate operation," he said.

The authority took over the 300-mile route in the 1980s after former owner Southern Pacific tried to abandon it, citing high costs and dwindling traffic.

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