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PD Editorial: Cities should heed CPUC plea to be patient with train horns

Most U.S. communities served by commuter trains know well that despite the warnings, flashing lights and other safety features of at-grade crossings, accidents still happen. Plenty of them.

Over the past five years, 10,400 accidents have occurred nationwide between trains and cars, trucks or pedestrians, resulting in 1,223 deaths and 4,656 injuries. And the vast majority of those accidents have occurred on rail lines that been operational for years.

This is one reason why some rail officials are so concerned about the SMART train that’s soon to begin operating in Marin and Sonoma counties. It’s been more than 50 years since the North Coast has been served by a commuter rail system. Residents aren’t used to seeing trains regularly using those tracks, let alone ones traveling at speeds of up to 79 mph. Nonetheless, when the SMART train begins service in the coming weeks - possibly by mid-June - it will be seeking to accomplish two significant changes at once. It will be providing regular train service to an area that is starting one from scratch - an unusual event in any location within the United States - and it will be doing so on a 43-mile corridor that will be one long quiet zone, meaning that trains will no longer be under federal mandate to blow their horns at every crossing.

But doing both of those things at once understandably make officials nervous, which is why until this state-of-the-art train system is done with its testing, SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian says engineers need the freedom to be able to blow the train’s whistle when they see fit.

But for the time being, they won’t be able to do that - at least in Petaluma where the city has moved ahead with the creation of a quiet zone that prohibits SMART from sounding horns unless in an emergency. Violations can result in fines of up to $7,500 to SMART and to the train engineers themselves.

The frustration of neighbors living near the rail line at hearing the train whistle at all hours is understandable. But given that the entire system will soon be a quiet zone, it’s perplexing why Petaluma couldn’t have waited a matter of weeks until the train was fully operational before launching its quiet zone.

Officials at the California Public Utilities Commission are equally perplexed. In a strongly worded letter sent to the Petaluma City Council this week, the director of the CPUC’s Safety and Enforcement Division encouraged Petaluma to back down. “With the many distractions our fellow citizens indulge in or are exposed to, and the increased risk of adding high-speed passenger trains to rail lines where there previously was little or no service, it seems only prudent to allow the system to get up and in routine operations before silencing the train horn …,” Elizaveta Malashenko wrote.

It seems prudent to us as well. Moreover, it seems a flaw in federal regulations - and logic - that the Federal Railroad Authority would grant a city permission to adopt a quiet zone before trains even receive clearance to begin operation. But that appears to be a result of the fact that this is all uncharted territory. SMART is believed to be the first rail line in the country to start service and quiet zones at the same time. As such, the rail line should have the freedom they need to do the job right so the decision to do both at once is not something we eventually regret.

Be patient, Petaluma.

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