Trains Boats and Bikes: Sonoma-Marin Rail and Bike Path Update

SMART rail rolling stock is delivered and testing, with the first service starting late this year
SMART rail rolling stock is delivered and testing, with the first service starting late this year. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Streetsblog was given a tour of the southernmost segment of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) project, which is currently doing finishing work and testing on the initial 43 miles of line, running from near Sonoma County Airport to downtown San Rafael. SMART is re-purposing the historic Northwestern Pacific Railroad corridor, an old 70-mile rail line that hasn’t had passenger service for half a century. SMART has replaced all tracks and put in modern signal and safety systems. Service on this first phase will start late this year.

“65 percent of greenhouse gases come out of our tailpipes,” explained Matt Stevens, SMART’s Community Education and Outreach manager. “This is a way to make a contribution.” But for drivers who crave something beyond helping the environment, there are other reasons to take the train. “It’s got WIFI, tables, plugs for chargers and a bar,” he added. Stevens also said the counties have plans to focus future development around station hubs. It’s hoped the train will alleviate–or at least give people an alternative to–the heavily trafficked 101.

SMART uses Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) trains, built by an American subsidiary of Japan’s oldest train car maker, Nippon Sharyo. DMUs are essentially buses running on train tracks; they combine the interior space, speed and comfort of a train, with the low operational costs of a bus. That’s because unlike Caltrain and other commuter railroads, they don’t require big, bulky locomotives to pull them. Instead, each car has its own on-board diesel engine for propulsion.

The advantage of DMU is flexibility. Trains can be made as short or as long as demand requires, with no impact on performance. So SMART can run single-car trains very early in the morning or late at night, when ridership is low, or long trains during rush hour when ridership is high. And the system, if ridership is high enough, can be electrified later, which would permit even faster speeds and more frequent, BART-like service. Unlike BART, though, the trains are standard gauge, so freight trains can share the tracks for local deliveries. Meanwhile, DMUs, which are commonplace overseas, are starting to gain in popularity in the U.S. The “eBART” extension of Bay Area Rapid Transit to Antioch is employing them, as does the Sprinter train in North San Diego.

Although the initial phase of the SMART project will start operating later this year, the last four miles or so to Larkspur won’t be online for about a year and a half. This phase of the project was delayed over a decade ago by an anti-rail Larkspur City Council that didn’t want to participate. “The council even ripped down a trestle” that could have taken the trains closer to the ferry landing, explained Stevens.

That said, politics have shifted–and traffic has gotten worse–and Larkspur is now on board. With the trestle gone, SMART opted to build a station at nearby Larkspur Landing with a short pedestrian and bike bridge to bring people across Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and down to the level of the ferry terminal. That means it’s “about a five minute walk from the train station to the ferry,” said Stevens.

The downtown San Rafael station is all-but complete. Soon, trains will run to here and to Larkspur with a ferry connection to San Francisco. Photo: Roger Rudic
The downtown San Rafael station is all-but complete. Soon, trains will run to here and to Larkspur with a ferry connection to San Francisco. Photo: Roger Rudick

For cyclists, however, progress has been faster. And the Larkspur Landing tunnel and track has a great, off-road bike path; it’s already popular with cyclists using it for commuting and recreation.

Although it will be another __ until the train reaches Larkspur, the adjacent bike path is open now.
Although it will take longer for the train to start running to Larkspur, the adjacent bike path is open now. Photo: Roger Rudick.

That bike path will eventually continue directly, along with the pedestrian route, to the Larkspur Ferry Terminal.

A new bike and pedestrian bridge will make connecting from the train to San Francisco ferry's easier. Photo: Roger Rudick
A new bike and pedestrian bridge will make for an easy connection from the train to the San Francisco ferry. Photo: Roger Rudick
When the Larkspur station opens, it will be a short walk or bike ride to the ferry landing. Photo: Roger Rudick.
The ferry will let commuters continue from the end of the train line to San Francisco. Photo: Roger Rudick.
  • murphstahoe

    Your paean to SMART’s bike path is a bit misguided. SMART had not much if anything to do with the Cal Park Tunnel reconstruct, and SMART was openly hostile to getting that path to downtown San Rafael.

  • David Marcus

    That 5 minute walk is actually going to be a gross and indirect walk around a parking lot. Hope that’s not a dealbreaker for commuters.

  • Gezellig

    A few things to note:

    ^ Nowhere is “a network is only as good as its weakest link” truer than here, where the Cal Park Hill Tunnel path suddenly and unceremoniously ends, dumping you off at Andersen in San Rafael (nowhere near the SR Transit Center).

    There’s a conventional bike lane on the *other* side of the road, but:

    1) it’s difficult to get to (since there’s a median and intersections are far away. And oh-so-helpful signs telling you to walk your bike on the sidewalk).

    2) even once you get to the conventional bike lane it is not exactly for the faint of heart.

    Certainly not 8-to-80 stuff like the path is.

    In Street View below you can even see the guy on his bike kinda looking at Andersen like “wait wtf do I do now?”

    This bikeway network fail *must* be addressed before it will be a viable connection for most people between San Rafael Transit Center and Larkspur.

    –> That being said, do note that already doing commute hours there’s a free shuttle to/from the San Rafael Transit Center to/from the Larkspur Ferry Terminal:

    It takes about 10 minutes, which is pretty good. Presumably, service will be beefed up all the more once SMART arrives.

    –> The future Larkspur SMART station (opening 2017-18) will be kinda far from the ferry terminal. It’d be great if it took 5 minutes to walk there, but in my experience with the area I think it’ll be more like 5 minutes *biking*.

    I’ve read reports of there actually being plans for shuttles *from* the Larkspur SMART station to the Larkspur Ferry Terminal, since it will really be that far.

  • murphstahoe

    That walk is from where commuters currently park in the overflow lot, so it’s not much different than the status quo

  • murphstahoe

    Of all the places being debated for an expansion of bike share, this one seems like the most obvious.

  • p_chazz

    I read that article. SMART wasn’t openly hostile to the bike path, but they were facing a funding crisis and something had to go. And since they were charged with building a commuter rail system that something was identified as the bike path. Fortunately, additional funding was found and the bike path was was built.

  • murphstahoe

    They were charged – per measure Q – with building a commuter rail system AND a path. The plan for building the rails on Andersen was to do so in a manner to permanently preclude putting in a path. Farhad could care less if the path exists.

    “Fortunately, additional funding was found and the bike path was was built”

    1) There is no path yet.
    2) “Additional funding was found” – translation, SMART spent all the Measure Q money which was supposed to build a train *and* a path, so funding that would have otherwise gone to other bike projects was pulled in towards construction of a path here, depriving those other projects of funding.

  • Wow! These are so lovely.
    Manish @

  • theqin

    But as you notice from the picture a lot of people just bike on the sidewalk anyway. I would have voted for the crossing over corte madera creek as the worst segment. It has a steep grade with 90 degree turns, and the bridge path is not even really wide enough for two bikes to be traveling in opposite directions.

  • Gezellig

    But as you notice from the picture a lot of people just bike on the sidewalk anyway.

    Yeah, a classic case of people employing coping strategies in response to utterly hostile infrastructure.

    I would have voted for the crossing over corte madera creek as the worst segment. It has a steep grade with 90 degree turns, and the bridge path is not even really wide enough for two bikes to be traveling in opposite directions.

    Oh yeah, that part’s terrible! I know that stretch is targeted for a revamp as part of the Ferry connection project but not sure when it’ll be replaced/upgraded.

  • murphstahoe

    and as you ride on the sidewalk, you still need to eventually cross Andersen, which happens in a variety of “creative” ways by the various cyclists seen there.

  • MarkPritchard_SF

    “Utterly hostile” seems like an overstatement, given the evidence that people are using it.

  • murphstahoe

    People climb Everest every year and we don’t go around claiming people calling “difficult” are overstating things given that people do in fact summit the mountain.

    There are a lot of riders in Marin County, so you are going to get a population that can just deal with crap like Andersen. But we still sit on the ferry and chat with each other about how sketchy it is. We don’t like it, but we deal with it.

    However, there are a lot of people who live in San Rafael who would ride to the Ferry if this could be fixed. You see a lot more cyclists on the Bay Trail around Foster City than you see in the Cal Park Tunnel despite the fact that the Cal Park sits on a short route from a population center – San Rafael – to a major transit hub – the Larkspur Ferry.

    It’s one of the lousiest places I ride a bike – and I ride my bike on Interstate 280 in Millbrae.

  • Gezellig

    In its current state you’ll see very few if any 8-to-80 riders going to/from San Rafael Transit Center to/from Larkspur because the awesome path just ends unceremoniously, leaving you to find the conventional bike lanes/sharrows yourself. I’m pretty confident in my riding and the post-path part is not very fun even for me. It’s no surprise to me whatsoever that grandma and junior aren’t using it.

  • murphstahoe

    I’ve ridden that path from Ferry to downtown many times and I still can’t figure out what the official legal way to get from the path to the NB/WB side of Andersen even is. I just sort of follow along on the sidewalk until I see no traffic on Andersen and bunny hop off the curb and cross mid block. I’m not alone.

  • mx

    The distance from the Larkspur SMART station to the ferry terminal is nuts. Trying to get people to adopt a car-train-shuttle-ferry-walk commute (substitute bus for the initial car leg if you’re lucky enough to live near infrequent suburban bus service) will mean that you’ll mainly pick up riders with few other alternatives.

  • Gezellig

    I’ve also done it many times and whatever “official” (to the extent anyone official ever even considered its design) way you’re supposed to do it is not clear whatsoever. I also just follow along the sidewalk (there are virtually no people on foot there since the area is totally deserted) till an intersection comes up and cross over to the bike lane on the other side.

    That along with the fail that is the Richmond GreenwayOhlone Greenway “connection” (and the other major gap in the Richmond path right as it might be useful around the BART station) are among the worst gaps I’ve experienced in the Bay Area.

    If something’s not even clear to an intrepid Google Maps-bicycling-layer-enabled smartphone user, it’s a major design fail.

  • RichLL

    Oh, that’s you I see cycling on 280?

    I’ll give a shout out next time I see you.

  • griependerp

    You nailed this on the head. I addressed this in my graduate exit project, although I focused on Sonoma County cities’ efforts to facilitate bike-rail integration. Here’s a presentation I gave to the Petaluma PBAC:

    When I completed my project, I made the mistake of assuming that the length of the SMART path would run alongside the tracks. They’ve since unveiled the alignment, which is a huge disappointment. In a number of areas, what SMART considers to be the “multi-use path” are merely existing on-street Class II lanes. In Petaluma, a large portion is along North McDowell Boulevard, which is an absolute joke; it’s heavily trafficked with a design speed of 40-50 mph. Here’s a portion that doesn’t even have Class II lanes:

  • murphstahoe

    You’ll note that I’m the one passing you…

  • murphstahoe

    Once again. The distance you describe is currently walked by many ferry riders as that is the location of the overflow parking lot for the Ferry terminal – the overflow lot fills up every day.

    Everyone I talk to on the Ferry from Novato is very excited about the train and annoyed the Larkspur portion is not in place yet. Traffic on US-101 at peak rush is so awful that many of them take earlier ferries in the AM and later ferries in the PM than they otherwise would, in order to escape traffic. This has ceased to even work – traffic in Marin from Novato to San Rafael starts backing up at 6 AM.

    When you are talking about Ferry passengers, the most critical factor in their decision to take the Ferry is the cost of driving. While it might only be $3-4 in gas, you have a $6 toll and most importantly $20 or so in parking. The second factor is the traffic on Lombard which is extremely painful at rush hour.

    SMART does not have to attract new riders to the ferry in order to be a success. In fact if SMART attracts new ferry riders it might cause problems with ferry capacity which is already becoming an issue. If SMART can simply siphon off a big chunk of people currently driving from Petaluma or Novato to the Ferry, it’s a huge win for that super congested corridor.

    I for one cannot wait.

  • murphstahoe

    Are you still in Sonoma County? Are you a member of the Sonoma County Bike Coalition? I’d love to chat with you.

  • griependerp

    I am. I live in Petaluma and work in SF, so it is a bit difficult to make it up to Santa Rosa for SCBC events. I have chatted with Gary a couple of times. Feel free to get in touch:

  • MarkleMcD

    So…that pedestrian bridge in Larkspur was supposed to be ready months ago and it looks done. Anyone know when it will be open?

  • steveintoronto

    [People climb Everest every year and we don’t go around claiming people
    calling “difficult” are overstating things given that people do in fact
    summit the mountain.]
    Huh? Since when was sensible commuting a simile for mountain climbing?


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