San Rafael residents lose sleep with SMART trains launching overnight testing

Some San Rafael residents are losing sleep as the SMART train launches overnight testing on its newest route.  

Train horns are blaring about the time many people are in bed: between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. 

"Friday night was the first night and we heard them all night," said resident Ali Cattaneo," and we live on the hill so the sound definitely rises." 

Trains in the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit system routinely blare their horns when arriving at stations, but temporarily they are also sounding them as they several new crossings leading to Larkspur.

The goal is to have passengers on that extension by the end of 2019, where they can connect with the ferry terminal and commute into San Francisco. 

The test runs, with empty trains, are a federal requirement. 

The Bret Harte, Picnic, and Gerstle Park neighborhoods are bearing the brunt of it, with loud horns sometimes blaring every 15 minutes. 

"We got the notice that said it was going to be for two to three weeks," said Cattaneo, "but I don't understand why it has to be such late hours, it doesn't make sense to me."

SMART says it has passengers and a schedule to follow during the day, so there aren't any empty trains to use for tests until the overnight hours.

The testing is required by federal regulators to make sure all safety mechanisms work properly. 

That way, the new crossings can be exempted from horn-blowing when real service begins. 

"If we want quiet zones, we have to go through this exercise to make sure it's safe and functional, so if you want quiet zones, it's the price the community pays," said San Rafael Mayor Gary Phillips, who is also the Chairman of the SMART Board of Directors. 

At the same time, Phillips is hearing the complaints, and is sympathetic. 

"I get being awake in the middle of the night, nobody wants that," he said, "so I understand neighbors' reactions, and if there's something more we can do I'm all for it." 

On social media sites such as Next Door, residents are commenting and complaining about the noise and nighttime disruption.

"What are they thinking blowing that horn for three solid hours ?" read one post.

Bert Harte resident Craig Anderson has been active on the issue, researching railroad regulations, and trying to find a solution. 

"It's like someone blowing an airhorn outside your door," said Anderson," and I didn't get a wink, I just tossed and turned." 

For residents of Central San Rafael, the extension project means two years of construction, with torn-up roads, detours and congestion. 

So the noise is a final straw. 

"We have been in contact with SMART and they just say they have to do it so be patient but it's hard to be patient when you've had no sleep," said Peterson.   

At the Cattaneo house, overlooking the 101 freeway and the bay, the railroad tracks are about a half mile away, but the trains sound closer. 

"It blasts up here, the noise travels uphill," said Tony Cattaneo, "so on a scale of one to ten, it's about a seven in annoyance, but it will be a ten if it really goes on for a few weeks."