The mournful wail of a train whistle seemed perfectly at home at the old train depot in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square — which until recently, hadn’t seen a train in ages.
“We haven’t had trains here since the 1950s,” said Dee Richardson, the owner of Whistlestop Antiques in Railroad Square.
But over the last few months, trains have once again begun rumbling past the depot, as the voter-approved SMART Train conducts train tests in preparation for the launch of its commuter service later this year.
“We’ve waited for so many years to get this thing going again,” said Richardson. “It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.”
SMART has been running trains between Santa Rosa and San Rafael — testing the trains, signal lights and communication systems. The runs are also breaking in the tracks, many of which were replaced as part of the new service.
“Right now we have seven train sets,” said SMART spokeswoman Jeanne Mariani-Belding, “and six will be in operation when we start service.”
But in addition to trains, Mariani-Belding said SMART is rolling out a campaign to preach safety for drivers and pedestrians who are unaccustomed to having trains in their midst. She said SMART is visiting schools and businesses to hold informational gatherings about safety awareness.
“So we’re really urging motorists to be careful around all our crossing gates whether or not they see a train,” Mariani-Belding said.
During a recent test run, the trains cautiously approached traffic crossings where the signal arms didn’t lower. Instead, crews hopped from the train and held-up up stop signs to halt the traffic so the train could pass. Mariani-Belding explained some of the signals were still being tested — and the exercises were aimed at testing the ability of crews to manually stop traffic in the event of a malfunction.
At other intersections as the train approached, cars nudged past the safety lines and some even stopped perilously on the tracks as the train slowly approached.
“I think there’s going to be a big learning curve for just everybody in Sonoma County and Marin County regarding just rail safety,” said Allen Thomas who runs a Santa Rosa farmer’s market, “and making sure people stay away from the trains.”
Thomas is among merchants in Santa Rosa who are excited at the prospect of the trains delivering more customers to the area. Thomas recently relocated the Sunday market he runs with his wife to Railroad Square in anticipation of the arrival of the trains.
“Gives the people that are getting off the train, at least on Sunday,” Thomas said, “something that’s colorful and family oriented to look at.”
The service will initially run between Santa Rosa and San Raphael. But next year the service plans to extend to the Larkspur Ferry which will give commuters another possible connection to San Francisco.
In Railroad Square, Richardson hoped the new service would bring back a poignant bit of Railroad Square’s character. “The train made Railroad Square,” Richardson said. “That’s what’s double-exciting about bringing more life back here again.”