Tracks being laid for SMART train project

November 7, 2012 7:12:09 PM PST
Old train tracks have been pulled out and new tracks are being laid for the North Bay's first commuter train -- the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit project.

The aptly named tamper machine lifts, levels and straightens new rails and then tamps down the loose rocks underneath.

It is a painfully slow process when you consider it will have to cover 38 miles worth of new tracks between Santa Rosa and San Rafael for Phase One of the SMART train.

"This was Measure Q; it passed in 2008," SMART spokesperson Matt Stevens said. "We passed it with nearly 70 percent 'Yes' rate, which is, I think by any electoral standard, is a tsunami."

Maybe so, but the sales tax measure has not been without controversy, especially after the recession slashed revenue estimates. To compensate, the 70-mile plan was divided into two phases. Phase One will cover from Guerneville Road in Santa Rosa to downtown San Rafael. Old rails and ties, some dating to the 1940s, had to be pulled up from what was once the Northwestern Pacific line, which first operated in the area in the 1880s.

"What can be reused in other railroad applications, they're doing and then whatever's not, they're taking all the metals off to be recycled and then they grind the ties up and burn the, for, you know, power generation plants, they'll actually burn them," SMART spokesperson John Kerruish said. "So, it's getting 100 percent reused.

Ten miles of new rails have been laid down so far, with another shipment of 50 1,600-foot segments arriving from Colorado in a few days. The old wooden ties have been replaced with concrete ties, which are quieter and last longer.

Along with new rails and new ties, they need new ballast, the loose rocks that are placed in a mound under the tracks. They're delivered along the route in train cars.

The hope is that the train will be a reliable alternative to the often congested Highway 101. The train will travel at up to 79 miles per hour. Though it's not the entire system voters approved four years ago, SMART insists it will still be effective.

"It captures about 70-80 percent of the whole ridership we anticipated before we phased it," Stevens said. "And we anticipate building the rest of our project as our sales tax revenues increase and we get additional funding.

The first trains arrive a year from now to begin testing, with the system opening for business in 2016.

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