Mark your calendars, North Bay commuters.
The long-awaited Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, or SMART train, will finally launch full passenger service on Friday, Aug. 25, after receiving approval from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the agency announced on Thursday.
The 43-mile system will stretch from the Sonoma County Airport to downtown San Rafael. An extension to Larkspur is expected to be completed by 2019.
It's been a long road for North Bay commuters to get to this point. Voters approved a sales tax to pay for the train in 2008, but the financial crisis delayed the project. A design flaw and the need for more testing pushed a scheduled 2016 launch date into this year.
"People have been working seven days a week for years for this day," said Debora Fudge, the mayor of Windsor and chair of the SMART Board of Directors.
The final holdup was an FRA review of the SMART train's positive train control safety system, which is designed to automatically stop trains and avoid collisions. An FRA spokeswoman said while SMART is not yet PTC-certified, it has "revenue service demonstration (RSD) approval, which means it can test and run trains with PTC and report to FRA all anomalies, at real time, so that we can determine whether they can continue with their PTC system in service."
PTC uses GPS technology to track where trains are and how fast they're going. If something goes wrong, PTC alerts the train operator and can automatically slow a train if the operator doesn't respond.
"It doesn't completely automate the operation of the train," said James Moore, director of the transportation engineering program at the University of Southern California. "The goal is to automate the decisions that have to be made to avoid a collision.
All passenger and freight trains in the U.S. are required to have PTC installed by the end of 2018. Congress passed a law requiring its implementation after a head-on collision between a commuter train and a freight train in Chatsworth, California, killed 25 people and injured more than 100 in 2008. Moore said PTC could have prevented that crash and other recent deadly train collisions.
SMART could have started service without PTC and installed it before the deadline of Dec. 31, 2018, but SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian said they wanted to have the latest safety system installed from the beginning, making SMART one of the first rail systems in the country to have PTC fully operational from its inception.
"Positive train control will prevent all speed-related and speed-related human error accidents, which are a common cause of train accidents," Mansourian said. "It will save a lot of lives."
The hope is that SMART will also save North Bay commuters a lot of time, freeing them from the constant congestion on Highway 101.
"This is really going to increase the quality of life for people who live up here," Fudge said. She pointed to the certainty that the SMART train schedule will provide, as well as the community that she's seen grow on preview rides.
"People are visiting with each other on the train," Fudge said. "They're having coffee or a beer or a snack, and they're really communicating with each other."
Mansourian said SMART expects to have around 3,000 riders a day at the beginning.
"Now that they have an option, people are going to start asking themselves, 'Do I want to take this and cut my commute in half, or do I want to be stuck on 101?' " he said.
The SMART train will be free on opening day, and fares will be half price through Labor Day.