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.

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