As North Bay SMART train service nears, police crack down on drivers

SAN RAFAEL (KTVU) -- Passenger train service is expected to launch in the North Bay this month and San Rafael police have stepped up traffic enforcement around railroad crossings.

During busy commute hours, officers are ticketing drivers who block railroad crossings in an effort to raise awareness about the train service before the service begins.

The board of directors for the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit, or SMART, is expected to announce a launch date for train service this week. The schedule is expected to include more than 30 weekday trips between Sonoma and Marin Counties, and 10 trips on weekends.

The transit agency has more than 60 crossings on the 43-mile route from Santa Rosa to San Rafael. And downtown San Rafael's crossings are easily the most congested.

"You were stopped on the tracks," Officer Chuck Tirre explained to a motorist while issuing him a $237 citation.

Police say motorists should stop before their vehicle gets to the railroad crossing. This prevents a vehicle from being struck by an oncoming train if the driver is unable to move forward or reverse.

Three downtown crossings are clogged with traffic moving between the east- and west-sides of town, and navigating Highway 101.

So when the signal lights change, an unaware driver might be caught on the edge or squatting square in the middle of the tracks. Under the law, the train has right of way.

Police say it doesn't matter if the crossing arms are up and there's no train in sight. And drivers are supposed to remain 15 feet from the tracks.

Many warning signs are posted, and officers have been issuing warning citations for months.

"I think it's not fair," driver Julio Ramos said, as he accepted his citation. "But at the same time, this is the way we have to learn, too."

Since special enforcement began May 30, officers have written more than 60 tickets, officials said.

Staying off railroad tracks is a basic rule of the road, but easily overlooked during the decades the tracks were mostly dormant.

"The trains were here when I was a kid so I remember them a little bit," Hallroan said. "And I think odds are something is going to happen between a car and a train eventually. I hope not but this is kind of a tight area."

Police say drivers should not pull into an intersection unless you can look ahead and see your way through it.

Said Tirre: "You're going to get hit by a train (which) takes a mile to stop."

Officials say a train travelling 55 miles-per-hour even with its emergency brakes applied about one mile to fully stop.

"Well we're hearing people that are saying 'I was only in the intersection for a few seconds,'" said San Rafael police traffic Sgt. Raul Aguilar. "Even if it's a few seconds, it's a few seconds that could cost you your life. So, it's better to get a ticket than get into a collision with a train."

Officers said they hope the extra enforcement increases safety. Their body cameras record each car straddling the tracks if ticketed motorists contest the citation in court.

Not every violator takes the ticket in stride. "What?" one woman said indignantly. "I was following the car in front of me! This is ridiculous."

By KTVU reporter Debora Villalon.