Can Ferries Connect Bay Area Rail?

It looks as if there may soon be a one-seat connection between the East and North Bays

An Oakland ferry. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
An Oakland ferry. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A new weekend ferry route may soon allow Oakland residents to go directly to the North Bay, and vice versa. “The San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) is actively exploring the potential for weekend ferry service between Oakland and Larkspur. This includes working through docking berth capacity issues, vessel deployment, docking configurations, and other necessary operational collaboration with Golden Gate Ferry,” wrote WETA spokesperson Thomas Hall in an email to Streetsblog.

Last July, Oakland Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan raised the idea of direct service between destinations in the East Bay and North Bay. Streetsblog was especially intrigued by the possibility of a ferry run connecting Oakland and Larkspur, since that would allow North Bay residents to reach Amtrak in Jack London Square. Likewise, Oakland residents would have a way to connect to the new SMART train service into Marin and Sonoma, with a single transfer from ferry to train (of course, this assumes SMART restarts Sunday service and starts running at reasonable frequencies).

“I definitely think it’s worth looking at, and seeing if it’s technically feasible and makes sense logistically,” wrote SPUR’s Nick Josefowitz about the idea.

Caltrain King Street station is a ten minute walk from the Oracle Park ferry dock. Wikimedia Commons
Caltrain King Street station is a ten-minute walk from the Oracle Park ferry dock. Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, both of the Bay Area’s main operators are expanding ferry services, with schedules and routes rapidly returning to–and sometimes exceeding–pre-pandemic levels. The latest official announcement is that the Golden Gate Ferry, which operates services between the North Bay and San Francisco, is restoring services to Angel Island from San Francisco. They’ve also expanded their schedules between Tiburon, Sausalito, and San Francisco. From a press release:

Current schedules from Tiburon and Sausalito offer only one morning trip and one afternoon trip during the week. After December 13, there will be three morning trips from both Sausalito and Tiburon into San Francisco, and increased trips in the afternoons in both directions. With the direct service out of Tiburon, customers should expect shorter crossing times in addition to the more robust schedules.

San Francisco Bay Ferry has also been expanding services and reducing fares. Most notably, it added the Seaplane Lagoon Ferry Terminal route from Alameda to San Francisco. And, from a paid advertisement taken out in Berkeleyside:

San Francisco Bay Ferry has also made its Vallejo ferry schedule more flexible for passengers facing new and changing travel needs, while adding more departures to the Richmond ferry route … fares throughout the system have been reduced by up to 30 percent through June 2022, making the ferry a more affordable transit option for commuters, as well as for families looking to get out and about.

The departure board at the ferry building. Imagine if some of these boats continued through San Francisco to Larkspur and Oakland, instead of going back where they came from? Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
The departure board at the ferry building. Imagine if some of these boats continued through San Francisco to Larkspur and Oakland, instead of going back to where they came from? If they did, that “RAIL CONN” with Amtrak would be available to people from the North Bay too. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

All this growth and talk of a service that would link SMART and Amtrak had some advocates thinking even bigger. Ian Griffiths of Seamless Bay Area said there are internal discussions about WETA becoming “a ferry network manager.” That would mean Golden Gate Ferry and San Francisco Bay Ferry would coordinate fares and schedules. This just makes sense: the water is, after all, the same “gauge” in the North Bay, so there’s no reason ferry operations can’t be better coordinated, with the two agencies even potentially providing runs on the same routes to boost frequencies. Griffiths also hopes that by combining resources there can be sufficient capacity for a “pulse system,” with ferries leaving every fifteen minutes on some runs during rush hour.

Griffiths even envisions a circulator ferry service that would “do a loop around the Bay to all the rail systems.” Such a service might go clockwise and counterclockwise around the Bay, with stops at Oakland (Amtrak connection), Larkspur (SMART connection), and Oracle Park (Caltrain connection) allowing people to use existing rail networks to access the entire region without ever contending with traffic. And even if it isn’t as fast as driving, it’d certainly be more reliable and pleasant. “Nobody complains about spending more time on the ferry,” said Griffiths.

“Traveling from the East Bay to the Peninsula has always been one of the most difficult trips to make. With Caltrain a short walk away, new ferry service to this area [Oracle Park] could make that connection more viable,” wrote WETA director Seamus Murphy, in an email to Streetsblog.

A SMART train at San Rafael. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
A SMART train at San Rafael. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

Meanwhile, Streetsblog is trying to get more details on what WETA has in mind for the Larkspur/Oakland service. Would it be a triangle route that makes stops in San Francisco or would it just go directly Larkspur/Oakland? And is there a possibility of expanding it from just weekends to weekdays as well?

Most importantly, when would it start? “We’re working through what barriers need to be addressed,” said Hall. “We don’t have a timetable, but we’re excited to be exploring new service opportunities.”

Golden Gate ferries at Larkspur. What's stopping some of these runs from continuing from San Francisco to Oakland? Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Golden Gate ferries at Larkspur, a ten-minute walk from the SMART train. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Editor’s note: This is one in an occasional series of reports from Chris Carlsson on the history of transit in the Bay Area. There are thousands of people using ferries on the San Francisco Bay these days, so it’s hard to remember that ferry service died out for several decades. Of course the long history […]