San Rafael Meets its New Train

Rail returns to San Rafael for first time in a half century. Photo: SMART.
Rail returns to San Rafael for the first time in a half century. Photo: SMART.

In a previous post, Streetsblog got caught up on the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) project. A week later Marin County transit fans got a treat, with the arrival of the first Diesel Multiple Unit train at the new San Rafael station. The public got to board the train and have a look around.

“We are incredibly excited to welcome SMART to downtown San Rafael,” said Mayor Gary Phillips in a prepared statement.

San Rafael is part of the first phase of SMART, which will run 43 miles to Santa Rosa. It’s scheduled to begin service by the end of the year. Larkspur will come online after that. Ultimately, the train line, when fully built out, will stretch 70 miles from Cloverdale to Larkspur.

According to SMART, the last regular passenger service in downtown San Rafael made its final run in November of 1958. We’re sure residents of Sonoma and Marin county will be happy to finally have a comfortable alternative to the area’s notorious traffic jams.


Interior of the new Diesel Multiple Unit sets. Photo: SMART rail
Interior of the new Diesel Multiple Unit sets. Photo: SMART.
  • Andy Chow

    But LTK also lobbied to get a waiver for the DCTA A-Train north of Dallas. The A-Train uses non-FRA compliant European-based low floor DMUs, which I thought that SMART should’ve adopted. I hate seeing the stupid 4′ high platforms and glauntlet tracks when that they could’ve chosen a 2′ platforms with low floor car, while still not completely eliminate freight trains (that was their primary argument for for FRA compliant trains).

  • Andy Chow

    The only high platform commuter rail systems west of Mississippi are WES trains in Oregon, RTD in Denver, and Smart. They were/are all new construction. So I don’t know where you get the idea of having it be s de facto standard. eBART as far as I know plans to use non-compliant DMUs (since it would be dedicated tracks). Caltrain is unknown because while HSR and Clem Tillier would want Caltrain to use high platforms, Caltrain has no other reasons to do so.

    The chances of having Caltrain to run over on eBART, or eBART running on SMART is very low, let alone a direct transfer between these lines. Ability for through running is not really a good reason. It is the same reason for extending wide gauge BART in exurbs.

    If you think that couple of feet doesn’t make a difference, then why there’s no all-high platform boarding for Muni? Why are most street stop for Muni Metro remain to be wheelchair inaccessible? Why not pop those high platform stops on 3rd Street on Judah or Church?

  • RichLL

    Oakville, obviously given the context. Don’t be a dick.

  • RichLL

    No, the wine country is lower Napa and Sonoma counties, in terms of visitor numbers. Obviously if you want to to go to Healdsburg you’d stay on 101. But for the most-visited parts of the wine country in Napa and Sonoma, you’d use 37.

    And if you would drive from SF to Yountville via Santa Rosa and Calistoga, you are certifiable. Even more so from the East Bay.

    CA-37 is going nowhere – give up your Quixotic fantasy.

  • murphstahoe

    I did not say CA-37 is going away. I’m saying that perhaps building it in the first place was a major planning error. Well, it is going somewhere, it’s going underwater. That’s why California is already planning a 6 billion dollar replacement. Ooops.

  • RichLL

    I’d agree the engineering is difficult. I’d assume that a more northerly routing is not economic because of the hills. And, no doubt, the NIMBYs.

    But as the Bay Area hurtles towards 10 million people it would be very strange if there were no decent east-west throughway north of the Bay.

    For what it is worth, I hate driving on 37. Too much insanity and too many accidents. Apparently there was a plan to upgrade it to freeway standard at one point but it never happened. Presumably that would be more than 6 billion. Ho hum.

  • murphstahoe

    “No, the wine country is lower Napa and Sonoma

    counties, in terms of visitor numbers.”

    TOT Assessment by City:
    Sonoma County – 9%
    Cloverdale – 10%
    Healdsburg – 12%
    Petaluma – 10%
    Rohnert Park – 12%
    Santa Rosa – 9%
    Sebastopol – 10%
    Sonoma – 10%
    Windsor – 12%

    10% of the TOT for the entire county comes from Sonoma City. At least half of that 9% unincorporated is from Occidental, Bodega, Sea Ranch – e.g. West County. A lot of the SR/RP bed tax are visitors to Sonoma Valley as well, but they take 12 from where they are staying.

  • RichLL

    Sure, but Napa Valley is way bigger again, and you really do need to take 37 to get there almost no matter where in the Bay Area or beyond that you start from.

    Any which way you look at it, CA-37 is crucial. Too bad it’s crap.

  • murphstahoe

    That’s Napa Valley vs Sonoma Valley. Sonoma Valley (see above) is ~15 percent of Sonoma County tourism. Sonoma County has ~2x the amount of tourism than Napa County.

  • neroden

    — The other two bridges you mention look fine.
    — People with “informal easements” get kicked out without compensation, routinely, and this could be done right this minute.
    — Larkspur extension has a number of extremely expensive contributing factors. The one grade crossing is at a very tight angle and has to be completely redesigned to meet modern standards. There’s the tunnel. At the Larkspur end, the station is elevated and has to have access built. I would not use Larkspur to estimate the price for Healdsburg-Windsor.

    If you have some clear basis for your $200 million figure, I’d like to see it. Is is mostly the Russian River bridge?

  • neroden

    Is there any freight at *all* on the A-Train line?

  • neroden

    Actually, there aren’t. I know the complete list of ADA exemptions. It’s very short.

    Obviously, the entire SMART system will be wheelchair-accessible.

  • murphstahoe

    “The other two bridges you mention look fine” – was this from Google Street view? Or are you up here? Please go to that bridge and take a selfie in front of it, if you are actually inspecting those bridges. ZERO percent of the SMART trackway was “fine” for passenger operations. The whole thing needs new track, as such they need a new bridge in both places. I’d send you the email from a SMART board member attesting to that fact but I’m saving that one for a much larger battle.

    “People with “informal easements” get kicked out without compensation, routinely, and this could be done right this minute.” – doesn’t mean you don’t have to hire a lawyer to deal with them, and construction people to haul away the crap. On Pedroncelli road they have covered the tracks with asphalt because the tracks were messing up their cars (this only causes a demolition issue since the tracks will be replaced anyway – but it’s in the way of NWP’s freight dreams).

    The bridge is $100M minimum. They have to demo the old bridge and build a new one. No bid deal right? They did it once before! Only this time they have to deal with the water agencies, the EPA, Department of Fish and Game (the Russian River is a protected fish run). It cost $12M just to rehab the roadway bridge 100 yards downstream – which was basically paint, roadbed, and one new piling.

    Even at 50 million, where do you source that money? Nobody with a vested interest in it happening has the money.

  • neroden

    The question with short bridges — as I discovered long ago — is not whether the *bridge* is intact, but whether the *piers* and *abutments* need to be replaced.

    Bridge decks themselves are startlingly cheap if you can reuse the abutments. If the abutments have to be replaced, *then* the expense starts to really rise. Any evidence that the abutments are rotten? I don’t see any. The abutments look fine.

    “Even at 50 million, where do you source that money? Nobody with a vested interest in it happening has the money.”

    So Healdsburg (annual revenue $73 million, annual capital expenditures $22 million, perfectly capable of bonding $50 million) doesn’t really care whether they get train service? And neither does the county? OK good to know. In that case it won’t happen. If the locals don’t want it, it won’t happen.

    If the locals do want it, it sounds like the Russian River bridge is the main obstacle. And it does sound like a huge obstacle.

  • murphstahoe

    The locals might want it, but it’s doubtful that we want to pass the hat. I am at a coffee shop 200 yards from the Airport Road depot right now, I come down here fairly frequently. There is *never* any congestion between Healdsburg and Shiloh Road, there is *occasional* congestion in the stretch from Shiloh to Airport. The big impetus for train ridership right now is congestion – witness Caltrain’s exploding ridership.

    (amusing anecdote – the bus is going to stop at the Cloverdale, Healdsburg, and Windsor Depots – “so people get used to it for when the train comes”. #facepalm).

    SMART and SCT are going to put a feeder bus from Cloverdale to Airport Road, stopping in Healdsburg and Windsor. I expect ridership to be low because it’s so simple to just drive to the train station and *then* bypass the congestion from here to San Rafael.

    I’ll get you photos of the bridges on my way home, maybe tomorrow I’ll go walk (yes, walk) the RR bridge and snap a photo.

  • murphstahoe

    “Because it should be under $15 million in trackwork,

    maybe $5-$20 million in rebuilding berms.”

    Another issue, the various grade crossings are completely screwed up, will need replacement to modern standards. At least SMART has already put new crossing gates at several crossings that will never be used.

    See C-3

  • neroden

    Then you’re probably right. I still think they’ll do the Windsor extension. It’s only 4 grade crossings, and that makes the station walkable from most of Windsor, and gets people completely out of local airport and Santa Rosa traffic. But it’ll probably stop there.

  • murphstahoe

    The other unspoken issue is that all public transportation is subsidized. If we build it, we have to subsidize the operations….

    Ref: Subway, Central

  • neroden

    Looks like they’ve already put money in on crossings well north of the end of the operating line.

  • murphstahoe

    NCRA got a federal railroad safety grant specifically earmarked for signals. They had to use it or lose it. So they started at one end and kept going until they ran out of money. So these crossings have brand new signals and completely unsafe at grade crossings on the roadway, dangerous to cyclists and vehicle suspension.

  • neroden

    Hilarious. The fact that the signal work is done will keep the cost of any expansion down, I guess. Apparently freight runs as far as Windsor, though I’m scratching my head as to where the last active siding is.

  • Darren35

    Prop Q can be repealed.

  • Darren35

    I don’t take a train that doesn’t accept cash, has bad seating, won’t allow your bike, and they allow A holes like you on there that talk loud on the cellphone and eat noisy snacks.

  • Darren35

    I’m not looking for a deal. I’m not looking to ride 2 miles to take a dumb train. nobody needs the train.

  • Alicia

    Okay, grandpa.

  • mx

    Sounds like you won’t be riding the train then. That’s cool. See you on 101.

  • p_chazz

    Typical selfish bicyclist.

  • p_chazz

    Too late now. Money spent. Get with the program.

  • Darren35

    Typical response from a train rider, tree lover, illegal embracer, and gay supporter. Move on please. Go take your stupid little train, be the first one on it. I hope we get another El Nino so it wrecks the tracks out here and I hope each night, some homeless bum sleeps in that open tunnel on Lincoln.

  • Darren35

    Go put on your teeth, Grandma.

  • Darren35

    Hey, I pay a dollar to take the bus. Train, you’re paying 5 times that amount I guarantee you. And you won’t be going to the city either. To pay 5 bucks for crappy train service and add another 5 from San Rafael to the city is called wasted money. Bus rides are a lot cheaper. What they are doing to San Rafael is an outrage to have to once again move the bus stop. OH yeah, and then we got to kick out the taxis that take up space on the boarded up tracks.

  • OaktownPRE

    This is a joke, right? If it’s not you’re a real sack o’ shit.

  • jonobate

    There can be opposition to high platforms on streetcar lines. Which is to be expected, as a street is public space. You’re putting platforms directly outside of people’s houses, and taking away parking spaces to do so.

    A heavy rail station, such as for BART, SMART, or Caltrain, is the private property of the railroad. Within reason, they can build whatever they want. The T-Third got away with it because it was an entirely new line; changing the status quo results in far more resistance.

  • p_chazz

    Correction: typical homophobic selfish bicyclist. How low do you go?

  • jonobate

    Ban this guy, already

  • Andy Chow

    If it is good enough for BART and 3rd Street, why not on Judah?

    As you already understood, that the T line was new construction, which is consistent with all the other examples of new constructions. My argument that there has not been a successful full low platform to high platform rail system still stands. So I think the idea that Caltrain should go high platform because SMART’s decision has somehow set a standard is non-sense. I thought high platform and FRA compliance was a mistake and still is.

    If you compare the before and after pictures, and what could have been, these high platforms look out of place especially against historic structures. High platforms also restrict pedestrian flows because they always require step or ramps and make transfers difficult. If the rail system is designed to have restricted access (like passing through fare gates), high platforms might even help facilitate that, but open systems like SMART, Caltrain, and light rail are better off with low platforms and wider access.

    By the way, there’s also no example of high platform BRT systems in the United States, which are popular in Latin America. For example, El Paso’s system opted low platforms with low floor buses, whereas across Rio Grande the Juarez’s system went with high floor buses and high platform stops. Latin American systems often have gated access to the buses and American systems generally use proof of payment and prefer to blend in with the sidewalk rather than having some structure sticking out.

  • jonobate

    Just to be clear, I don’t believe that Muni Metro should have high platforms. Aside from the fact that it is visually intrusive and unnecessary to have high platforms in the middle of a street, low platform streetcars are great because even if you just have curb stops with no platforms you still have almost-level boarding. This is also why BRT is always low platform. Muni should have built the T with low platforms and should have a long term plan to convert the rest of the system as well.

    However, those considerations simply don’t apply to heavy rail systems. High platforms at heavy rail stations are not any more visually obtrusive than low platforms; you still haven’t given me an example of a resident who complained about this issue. It’s much easier for heavy rail systems to achieve systemwide level boarding, due to fewer platforms and not having to deal with NIMBY objections if they decide to alter those platforms; and if you do have systemwide level boarding, it is completely irrelevant whether that level is at 48″ or 25″ above the rails.

    None of the above is an argument in favor of high or low platform for heavy rail; it’s an argument that it doesn’t matter which height you pick, unless you have an overriding technical consideration, such as availability of suitable vehicles, that favors one height over the other.

    I don’t think that the fact that SMART has high platforms should have any bearing on what Caltrain does, as the two systems will never interface. However, high platforms are the only practical choice for HSR due to the lack of low-floor HSR trains, and HSR certainly will interface with Caltrain, so for this reason it makes sense for both system to use high platforms. This is the overriding technical consideration that is far more important to the decision than nebulous aesthetic considerations.

  • Andy Chow

    Aesthetic consideration is one of many reasons I am against high platforms for Caltrain, and I don’t think that height somehow is a non-issue.

    Caltrain uses bi-level trains, but also has the best accommodation for bikes. So unless Caltrain orders cars used by SEPTA and RTD (which are fully FRA compliant), there’s no cars that can handle bikes suitably with high platforms (whether it is European or American based).

    So you either give up the purported travel time benefits with level boarding in exchange for difficult and less safe bike access, or have Caltrain buy more cars and extend platforms to handle longer trains, in which there will be implications in the communities because many stations are between two grade crossings and have limited lengths.

    HSR only interfaces with Caltrain at most 3 stops. It is cheaper to build dedicated platforms for HSR to provide additional capacity where it matters, rather than rebuild the Caltrain platforms which HSR won’t use so somehow both system “could” share platform (but not necessarily they “would”).

    Again, there’s no example of a successful full conversion to high platforms, not even the Northeast corridor, when almost every equipment is single level high platform ready. Why would I believe that somehow HSR is going to pay for everything (which Caltrain insisted, but I know that HSR only promised to make Caltrain high platform ready, but not rebuilding every Caltrain platform), when they may just drop a corridor with a new business plan, or that something more drastic could change with a ballot initiative or a change in leadership in Sacramento.

    Muni is in a situation where they can’t convert all platforms to high level, but have invested too much with high platforms and rolling stock to convert to low level. I don’t want to see Caltrain go down that path. Muni is now building a loop around 18th Street, which arguably would allow the E-line to use single ended streetcars and extend to Mission Bay, but then because of the high T platforms, there will be additional costs and that the historic streetcar may not serve all the T stops. So while the system is compatible with streetcars running on T tracks, they’re not compatible where it matters to riders.

  • jonobate

    Let’s be clear – when you say “there’s no cars that can handle bikes suitably with high platforms”, what you mean is that with high platform cars, bike riders may have to go down 2 or 3 steps inside the train to get to the bike storage area. I simply don’t see that as an issue. Additionally, there are no reasons whatsoever why Caltrain would ever have to extend platform lengths because they used high platforms rather than low platforms.

    HSR never offered to pay for raising Caltrain platforms to 48”, except for at the three stations where they will share platforms; it is disingenuous for you to suggest that they made that offer and then rescinded it. That doesn’t make any difference to the question of whether Caltrain should go with 25” or 48” trains, because if they want level boarding – and they should – they need to rebuild all of their platforms regardless of which train height they chose. The cost to Caltrain of rebuilding platforms to 48” is the same as the cost to rebuild them to 25”, so it makes no difference.

    The bottom line is – in isolation from HSR, there is no compelling reason for Caltrain to choose either 25” or 48”. But, there is a compelling vehicle availability reason for HSR to choose 48” rather than 25”. When you consider that the two systems will be sharing the same highly constrained infrastructure, and that not sharing that infrastructure will negatively impact both systems, it makes abundant sense for both systems to use a platform height that works for both of them.

    Muni’s situation is completely different to Caltrain’s. It’s a completely different technology in a completely different operating environment. The fact that you don’t understand that, and have to keep referring back to Muni to justify your position on Caltrain’s platform height, is an indication that your position on Caltrain doesn’t stand up on it’s own merits

  • Claude

    It’s okay to say, }I’m a Tea Party extremist who demands the right to dictate what other people are allowed to want or use. Your life is mine to control.”
    Then we’ll know that you really do have a right to impose your preferences on other people.
    Or we’ll exercise that nasty “freedom” stuff and live our own lives. And never think of forcing you to ride the train just because we prefer it.
    But I guess we don’t love liberty as much as you do.

  • Andy Chow

    I don’t agree that 25″ is no different that 48″. To me is like saying Al Gore was no different than George W. Bush. Having bikes to navigate interior steps is a safety issue, and the way to address is the only allow bikes to move when the train is stopped, which means adding dwell time, or only use single level cars, which means longer platform to offer the same capacity.

    There have been some successful efforts to raise platforms for level boarding for light rail, like in San Jose and San Diego, but they’re all to the height to match low floor cars. But there’s no successful examples of full conversion to high platforms, may that be the Northeast Corridor, Muni, the light rail systems in Pittsburgh and Buffalo.

    Whatever the benefits of sharing platform is not based on realistic evaluation of having dedicated facility, but more about “feelings” that they ought to be compatible. I bet that having dedicated platforms for HSR would be cheaper and operationally beneficial than just raising Caltrain platforms but no additional or dedicated platforms.

    Some people would say that if Caltrain and HSR share platforms that some passenger can just board any train to San Jose or San Francisco. But because of profit motive and operational needs, most intercity high speed trains around the world sell tickets that are only valid on a certain trip. This is also true with intercity buses or airlines. That’s why Amtrak and high speed trains have train numbers like flight numbers. Dedicated facility would therefore be desirable as not to mix intercity riders who have reservations with local riders without reservations.

    Unlike Caltrain and HSR, Muni Metro and historic streetcars offer similar service (local transit) but simply with a different vehicle. So the ability to share platforms would be far higher. Muni certainly couldn’t justify not build high platforms on the T Line because it wouldn’t be compatible with the E-line cars. Now the development in Mission Bay could justify running E-line cars (and use the 18th Street to turn back single ended cars), but they cannot use high platforms.

  • Darren35

    In politics, I vote for the one that can do the job regardless of Democrat, Republican, or Independent. Per why I didn’t support Prop Q and I still don’t support it is because the money generated should have been used to fix Novato Narrows sooner, to improve Golden Gate Transit. See, that’s why GGT has a driver shortage and some commute routes are terrible because not enough money was sent to fix their services and get them more qualified drivers. We were using the money for an illegal train service, to not properly fix that area designed for a bike path out in Lincoln where that tunnel is, and we didn’t double track in sections of Marin, just giving us a single track service. The train stops, there isn’t one in Rowland where I live close to. I have to go up to like San Marin to catch a train, 4 miles up to catch a train going 10 miles down, whereas on my bike, I can get to San Rafael in one hour. By not fixing that area in Lincoln, bikers are subjected when they got north to climb up a 3% grade in Merrydale.

    My liberty Claude is to be like Archie Bunker and George Jefferson and educate the little people in you, as I listen to Michael Savage and voting for Trump. Take your train to nowhere, that’s where Smart is going, NOWHERE like that bridge in Alaska goes NOWHERE too.

  • Darren35

    I am a proud Trump voter, so you can’t take away my rights to freedom of speech. Now your’e being a racist to me, we can’t have that now.

  • Darren35

    Least I don’t go to the old wife and get money to pay for guzzling gas for the old 4 by 4 you drive around in. Least I’m not stressed. Matter of fact, son, when I left work on Tuesday, I went from San Rafael to San Marin and from San Marin, rode on out to Indian Valley College. I went from 458 miles to 495 miles all in one day. That’s how healthy I am son, and I also rode 11 miles to work to start off my day. So enjoy sitting in the traffic, whether you drive or take the wonderful new train going NOWHERE. It’s not going to get you to San Francisco. That’s why it’s really DUMB to have a half A’ed train service.

  • Darren35

    I’m like Donald Trump. I never joke around. I merely said the train is a failure in Marin County and you people don’t want to listen. You see it as the promised land, no more traffic by 37 interchange going to San Pedro Marin Civic Center, going to be better with the train. Get real. Traffic is not going to improve. Over in Larkspur, they got a parking problem. Even if Smart had a parking problem, they would be unreliable as Bart, not enough train cars, nobody taking the service. What works for Bart, Ace, Cal Train will not work for Smart for you still have traffic. That’s not a solution if it doesn’t work and oh yeah, I guarantee you that we’ll be taking care of the homeless problem when the train runs over them each day.

  • p_chazz

    Haha I don’t drive. I never even learned. I only take public transportation,so that’s why I’m in favor of the train. Now go give yourself a gold star for being such a healthy person. Buh bye!

  • p_chazz

    He can’t help himself, he was born that way.

  • Darren35

    Such a pity that rather then drive me away, you keep motivating me, loser. I take public transportation too, loser, but I’ll support the bus more then a train. If I wanted to take a trip, I would take Amtrak but see, that’s why I wisely save my money so that way when I have extra money, I can take the BUS over and get good tacos at my secret location. See ya chump loser. Vote for Trump now if you don’t want to see the next civil war.

  • cary simmons

    Why no buses that go directly to Novato from Vallejo? In fact Marin and GG Transit have CUT service. If you don’t drive you are screwed.


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