Open Thread: More SMART Trains for the Bay Area?

With the new rail service breaking the one-millionth-rider mark, is it time to talk about more extensions and applying this strategy in other parts of the Bay Area?

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The SMART train during its debut in San Rafael less than two years ago. Photo: SMART

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The Sonoma Marin-Area Rail Transit train, better known as SMART, carried its millionth passenger late last week. According to an advisory from the fledgling railroad, many passengers received free trips to mark the milestone.

SMART, which started running in August of 2017, is 43 miles long with 10 stations. It cost about $500 million to build, depending how one crunches the numbers. It will eventually be built out to 70 miles.

Even BART‘s “cheaper,” non-electrified, Antioch extension cost around four times as much as SMART per mile to build (and it leaves passengers in the middle of freeway medians, rather than town centers).

SMART is less expensive, in large part, because it modernizes and re-purposes abandoned or slightly used lines, rather than building an ROW from scratch or in a freeway median.

Given its low cost, could SMART be a model for extending rail transit around the Bay Area? Could it be an affordable solution for other nascent projects, such as re-activating the Dumbarton line from Redwood City to the East Bay?

Perhaps. But in the meantime, SMART is still adding rolling stock and building and is “…slated to open its Larkspur extension later this year. Downtown Novato is set to open in 2019. SMART is also working on extending further north to Windsor by the end of 2021,” explained Jeanne Mariani-Belding, a spokeswoman for the rail line. There is also the possibility of a future branch line to the east along highway 37, as part of the State Rail Plan, she added.

This could potentially connect SMART to Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor line between Sacramento, Oakland and San Jose. And since SMART uses standard-gauge trains, sharing the line with Amtrak in places is not beyond the realm of possibilities, although the different platform heights (SMART is high, Amtrak is low) would make it complicated.

On the other hand, Streetsblog could find no discussion of re-activating the ROWs to the south of Larkspur for SMART. The North Pacific Coast Railroad used to run electrified service from Mill Valley and Larkspur south to Sausalito. In fact, Mill Valley’s historic train station, located in the center of one of the wealthiest towns in California, is preserved as a coffee and book shop. Streetsblog has inquiries out to try and find out why SMART is looking in every direction except south.

Mill Valley train station. Now used as a book store and coffee shop. Photo: Susie Wasserstrom
Mill Valley train station. Now used as a book store and coffee shop. Photo: Susie Wasserstrom

Either way, SMART’s approach of providing relatively low-cost diesel multiple-unit rail train service on existing and refurbished lines seems to have worked. SMART doesn’t run the frequencies of a typical BART line, with only about 17 trips per day in each direction. But they have the option of adding passing tracks and getting more train cars to increase service over time.

What do you think? Are there other parts of the Bay Area where SMART train’s approach could be applied? Are you aware of any lightly used or abandoned ROWs where the SMART trains could run? Comment below.

  • ben

    Yes!! Does Smart allow bikes? Perhaps a bike car would be ideal for their third car! I sure hope that CA gets this going, and we get a Fed govt with an eye toward progress!! Getting this train to Ukiah at least and fast tracking the trail the rest of the way will be epic.

  • alussier

    I’ve heard this point of view: that the track bed is too difficult to maintain. However, that ROW had been operating for over 100 years before the flood damage by El Niño storms in the late 1980s and 1990s. Restoration is obviously still feasible: the political question is whether it’s viable. That’s better answered as an economic cost-benefit analysis that includes some vision/strategy assumptions about future access to the cities of Humboldt County. It doesn’t need to exclude a bike and hiking trail: SMART is a fine example of building for both ped/bike and trains, and by building a multi-modal path, we’d expand the funding resources we could assemble.

    Included in the forecasting should be the limits of expanding 101 on the Humboldt and Mendocino economies: we’ve already seen serious pushback on the freeway proposals thru Willits and Eureka, and it seems the only room for sustainable corridor growth would be focusing on a viable alternative, which rail historically has provided through the 1980s.

    My point is that NOT providing for a future rail line is too restrictively severe a decision: it’s far easier to rebuild bridges and tunnels that accommodate trains and hikers/bikers than to cut out the trains.

  • alussier

    It would be interesting to see how developing the segments might change the idea of “enough interest.” I can easily see SMART being justified north to Willits, where it could connect with the Skunk. That would open a big market for the Bay Area that doesn’t exist today because riding the Skunk requires driving up 101 first: there’s no rail alternative to get to the rails.

    And while that’s happening, the metro area between Arcata and Scotia/Rio Dell could preserve and develop the rails for a mix of a freight and passenger excursion service there: linking Fortuna, Loleta and Eureka in between. There are already short-line rail excursions operating as a sort of curio/fun ride in Loleta and these draw a crowd, so developing a SMART-like car service there might be a viable plan for this corridor as these cities grow: and they are growing, and traffic is getting worse, and the population does push for transit as a future solution.

    So: if rail is developed from Larkspur to Willits from the south and from Arcata to Scotia from the north, this changes assumptions and forecasts for the viability of restoring service along the corridor in between Willits and Scotia.

  • Fred Cain

    Ben,

    Well, actually, I’m still researching this and what I’ve uncovered so far is there is more interest in bringing rail service back to Eureka than I first thought. I guess it’s kind of a hot-button issue up there.

    Years ago I used to think that maybe they need a new alignment along the side of the Eel River canyon that’s a bit higher in elevation. Would that help prevent so many washouts? I’m sure the Friends Of The Eel River group and some other environmentalists would just LOVE that!

    But there is enough interest in bringing rail back to the Humboldt Bay area that a direct east-west line through the coast range from Redding has been discussed. But, what the heck? That would probably do more environmental damage than simply rebuilding the old line!

    There is some interest in the Eureka area of developing more port business. As some rail advocates and I have pointed out, using trucks to serve the port along U.S. 101 would not be nearly as environmentally “friendly” as rail would be. All forms of modern transportation impact the environment but railways seem to do less damage than other modes. Plus a rebuilt rail line would have other benefits as “alussier” pointed out above.

    Regards,
    Fred M. Cain

  • Fred Cain

    Dear alussier,

    These are excellent points !

    Fred M. Cain

  • David

    It looks like Streetsblog has bought into the SMART BS that uninformed politicians have been peddling in the North Bay for years now. SMART runs every 60-90 minutes during rush hour, has a single midday train in each direction, and runs a very limited weekend schedule. The fare-per-passenger and subsidy-per-passenger are significantly higher than parallel bus service operated by Golden Gate Transit. It took over a year for SMART to get its one millionth passenger.

    Ridership is only slightly stronger than Golden Gate Transit Route 101–a single bus route that operates along the same corridor. When you combine the 101 with other parallel Golden Gate Transit, Marin Transit, and Sonoma County Transit bus routes, it becomes very clear that SMART is a token service that distracts rich white people who like shiny objects from the actual public transit workhorses that serve North Bay commuters. The SMART ROW should have been used as a busway as originally considered. That would have allowed a connection further south to at least Corte Madera and resulted in a high frequency BRT service with buses operating every 5 minutes or better–the existing service level provided by the mix of GGT, MT, and SCT buses already operating along the Highway 101 corridor.

    Just think…a BRT bus every 5 minutes instead of a train every 90 minutes. That would have been huge! So much for progress.

  • relentlesscactus

    “It almost would appear to me that they set up the North Coast Rail Authority for failure.”

    Ya THINK?!!!?!!

  • relentlesscactus

    The east-west line is an expensive joke.

  • relentlesscactus

    Tunnel north of Cloverdale burned and collapsed. A bit of an obstacle, not fatal.

  • crazyvag
  • p_chazz

    Now what would really be cool is to run trains over the mountain to San Jose along the route of the Suntan Specials.

  • SFnative74
  • p_chazz

    A passenger and freight rail operation could make a go of it on the south end perhaps as far as Willits or Ukiah, and around Humboldt Bay from Arcata to Scotia. But as for the Eel River Canyon–fuggeddaboutit.

    The NWP did not operate through the Eel River Canyon for “over 100 years” as alussier stated. It was in operation from 1914 until 1996–82 years, not counting the months that it was closed from 1964-65 after the Eel River flood. Lots of people have looked at it and lots of people have walked away.

    “I worked with a couple of parties in Colorado, who were interested in operating the Eureka Southern after it went bankrupt in 86 or 87. One party took one hyrail trip and walked away from it. He showed me the track book that Michael Ongerth (Former Vice President and General Manager of the NWP, SP Western Division Superintendant) is posting, but I don’t remember the notes. I saw what I guess was a photo copy of the track diagrams. He made bags of soil samples and had a geologist make an analysis. The report back was this soil would never stop moving. He talked to a few of the on line shippers and they said they would never seriously use the railroad unless US 101 was blocked or truck rates became so prohibitive or a lack of trucks available. The other party used my book as a guide and made a field trip via the highway. Same story from the shippers. That party too walked away, never to set up a meeting.”-Wesley Fox, 2006

    “I personally do not think that the NWP will ever operate again without significant subsidies from someone. The ongoing maintenance costs are just too high. The remaining traffic base too low and from Eureka to San Rafael is a 300 mile railroad. Everyone knows about the Eel River canyon with its slides and sinks. But there is also Ridge Hill between Willits and Ukiah. And, then there is the Russian River canyon. Both of these also have a number of locations with unstable subgrade with slides and sinks. South of Cloverdale there is a good opportunity for some type of rail commuter operation. Perhaps that operation can maintain the track and the freight operation could use it at night.”- Michael Ongerth, (Former Vice President and General Manager of the NWP, SP Western Division Superintendant) 2005.

    From “Why the Eel River Route can’t, and shouldn’t, be rebuilt”
    http://nwprr.net/profiles/blog/show?id=3290209%3ABlogPost%3A103079&page=4

  • thielges

    Would be nice though part of that route is now beneath Lexington Reservoir. My guess is that restoration of that Santa Cruz to San Jose line is at least a $3B project.

  • David Van Brink

    It’s true, the old route is “very unavailable” to say the least. But, there is some interest in creating a modern version which is more of a novelty/excursion service, since it would go the long way round and take a bit longer than driving.

    The current Rail Operator included it as suggested product involving the Santa Cruz Branch Line. Page 41 on their pitch: https://sccrtc.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Progressive-Rail-Proposal-for-Operator-of-Rail-Service-Jan-4-2018.pdf

  • Fred Cain

    pchazz,

    If your comments could be taken as gospel then why the heck is the State Hell-bent on building a bicycle trail through there? This is beginning to sound like bad and even worse idea. They are prepared to spend millions building this thing which if past is prologue it will just keep washing out.

    I continue to believe that this rail line can be permanently fixed. I am neither a geologist nor a civil engineer but sheer logic tells me that if Colorado could build I-70 through Glenwood Canyon that surely this could be fixed as well. Traffic? There is NO traffic but only because the line is not open. The FHWA and CO didn’t take into consideration “the return” on building I-70 they just did it. Why is it that railroads are mandated to produce a return but highways are not? Why don’t they put tolls on I-70 (and U.S. 101 as well for that matter) and mandate them to “earn a profit”? I think the answer is because they believe that those highways would produce some kind of social benefits. Well, railways do too.

    I get the feeling that there is enough support in the Humboldt Bay area for a new rail line that there is still a ray of hope that there can be a fix for this although it is admittedly a long shot.

    Unfortunately, I am afraid I’ve drifted too far of the original topic of this thread. But I have enjoyed the discussion nevertheless. At least a couple of people on here have provided some hope for the future of the NWP rail line.

    Regards,
    Fred M. Cain

  • murphstahoe

    Not possible. The train can’t go over the gradient of the bridge. They would have to put a draw bridge in place in order to have the trains and still allow maritime traffic.

  • murphstahoe

    The NCRA is in the process of being deprecated, and the ROW is planned to be converted into a recreational trail, at the very least north of Willits.

    I am skeptical the line ever reaches Cloverdale.

  • murphstahoe

    I have ridden my bike on US-101 from Cloverdale to Hopland. Yes – on the freeway, there is no alternate route.

    In that stretch of roadway, I would get passed in that half hour time frame by maybe 50 cars. North of Cloverdale is amazingly remote, there is no there there. It may be romantic, but there just isn’t anything going on up there.

    A train past Cloverdale, if it ran, would be empty.

  • murphstahoe

    The only problem is getting conductors. The cost of living has put a real damper on the ability to hire.

  • murphstahoe

    Healdsburg has a bigger problem than a tunnel, the replacement of the bridge over the Russian River.

  • murphstahoe

    Somehow it’s a problem that the train is single tracked, but we can run buses each direction at 5 minute headways on the same right of way?

  • Fred Cain

    Well, like I said earlier. I rode on the Willits-Eureka passenger train in the late 1980s and it was FULL. Trust me. It was hard to even get on it without a waiting list.

    But I realize that a full passenger train and even a few container trains from the port of Humboldt Bay would not be able to pay off what it would cost to rebuild the line. True. After all, cross-country Amtrak trains are full and they still lose money. So, is this line really worth rebuilding? Unfortunately that all depends on your perspective. For people who’d think they’d never use it, then it would not be worth it. Realize, too, that there was an enormous amount of opposition to SMART at the beginning, too. I am even old enough to remember when they started building BART. Whew! There was so much opposition that they almost didn’t even do it.

    A real serious question I have that I have yet to find a direct answer for is just HOW much is the State planning to spend on this “rail trail”? Then how many people will cycle on it? I’m an avid bike rider myself and I know it’d be fun to do but I’d like to know how much they plan to invest in it opposed to how much the state spent in an effort to bring back active rail service to Eureka.

    If they only gave the North Coast Rail Authority a few million but plan on spending 30 or 40 million on the trail then, uh, well, something is clearly wrong with that picture. Still, it’d be nice to see some figures here.

    Regards,
    Fred M. Cain

  • murphstahoe

    Hey Fred – great comment.

    I bet that train was great! I’m jealous.

    but if you had any frequent service it would mostly run empty, and lower frequency but full trains don’t pencil out with the build.

    SMART is a different beast, Santa Rosa has a six figure population and the North Bay will continue to grow, sucking up the population overflow from the Bay Area. I think SMART will be an iconic part of it – it’s been pretty successful so far, given its infancy and the fact that service is still more limited than I would like

    My honest assessment is that the trail never happens. It would be very expensive to build, and very expensive to maintain. There isn’t a local population of merit to use it, and tourists would have to drive a very long way to ride this trail, bypassing many very nice similar trails in Sonoma County. Stronger riders who would utilize long stretches of trail would probably eschew this trail to ride on the roads of Mendocino County which are more challenging and probably safer, even with cars, because it’s tough to ride at high speeds on narrow trails with the possibility of debris that will accumulate on the trails (on roadways, motor vehicles provide the service of blowing debris off the roadway, on trails it just accumulates).

    I think this whole thing was done just to pay off the bondholders of NCRA and sort of shut the whole thing down, while maintaining the ROW “just in case”

  • Fred Cain

    murphstahoe,

    Well, I guess that’s a good point; I hadn’t thought of that! The State – or somebody made an effort to restore rail service up there and so far to date that effort failed. So perhaps this whole thing with the trail is a face-saving gesture. You may be right; they might not build the trail anyhow. After all, it really doesn’t make sense given the potential costs.

    You know, it’s a funny thing. I have reached out to a lot of different people on this issue over the last few days. The Eureka Chamber of Commerce, The North Coast Rail Authority, The Humboldt Harbor Commission, Train Riders Association of California and the Rail Passenger Association of California. Guess what? NONE of them will return e-mails. I got a better response on this discussion group. Maybe they regard this thing and a hot potato and are reluctant to comment on it publicly.

    Regards,
    Fred M. Cain

  • Fred Cain

    I would like to say one more thing about this. This is the train my Dad and I rode on:

    http://www.trainweb.org/chris/Trip_EurekaSouthern.html

    No, I didn’t take those pictures but they give you a pretty good idea of what things looked like. Looks like the Eureka Southern was already having problems keeping their trains on the track back then. Although the day we went, I don’t recall seeing any derailments. What a sad thing that this was not able to succeed.

    Regards,
    Fred M. Cain,
    Now of Topeka, Indiana

  • 50 Year Resident

    .
    As is the north/south line
    .

  • relentlesscactus

    Maybe . . . maybe even probably . . . but they are on different magnitudes of massive money flush and therefore complete unfeasibility.

  • p_chazz

    Of course, what railfan wouldn’t want the chance to ride through the Eel River Canyon. The geology of the north coast is so unstable, it’s a wonder that the railroad lasted as long as it did. This is from a comment at the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Historical Society Facebook page:

    “Before I went to work up there in 1984 I figured that Scotia Bluffs were the worst stretch of track between Eureka and Willits. Then I discovered Berger Creek Hump, 190.25 mud glacier, 201 hump, and the unlimited number of sinks and culverts that would wash out every winter – and realized I knew next to nothing. To beat a dead horse: for reasons unknown the NWP built down the SP’s preferred ROW, the main fork of the Eel instead of the Santa Fe’s – the South Fork – it all went downhill – literally – from there. Timber lined tunnels that burned/collapsed regularly, including #27 , only compounded the problems, for decades. SFE was probably right to sell out in 1929, although I feel this hurt online communities, especially those in Marin and Sonoma counties; these would have enjoyed more enlightened passenger service had Santa Fe remained in charge, especially with the electric trains.”

  • Don Bing

    How about ferry service from Larkspur to the East Bay – Berkeley or Oakland?

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