Thursday, June 29, 2017

The SMART train and reality

Conductor engineer, Mike Clift boards the SMART train as it leaves the Petaluma train station en-route to the San Rafael station, for a demonstration run on Wednesday June 28, 2017 in Petaluma, Ca. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle
Photo: Michael Macor

The Chronicle's story today on the SMART train (Engine that could) could have been a press release by SMART's "media center":

The soft launch of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit system brought back memories for the railroad historian, who was invited on an hourlong “preview” ride between Petaluma and San Rafael — a trip that authorities hope will be popular with regular commuters beginning at a still unspecified date this summer. “Marin County was full of railroads at one time,” said [Fred]Codoni, who edits publications for the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Historical Society. “You look across America and rail service is coming back everywhere. It’s about time. We can’t continue to drive ourselves into oblivion.”

Not at all clear that "rail service is coming back" in the US (See Randal O'toole's Is your transportation project a boondoggle?) But Codoni is a rail buff who writes nostalgic books about extinct rail service in Marin and elsewhere. The Chronicle story quotes only Codoni and SMART's general manager.

The Independent Journal's story doesn't do much better, but it always has a lively, must-read discussion in the comments to its SMART stories. This story had 74 comments last time I looked. Comments by Richard Hall are particularly well-informed.

From the Chronicle's story:

Questions remain about whether enough riders will board to make the system worthwhile and cost-effective. But Codoni said there were plenty of riders who used the Northwestern Pacific Railroad when it chugged along the same tracks in the first five decades of the last century. “People say, ‘Look at BART, it didn’t do anything to relieve congestion.’ Well, it did so,” Codoni said. “It takes 500,000 commuters off the streets every day. What would congestion be like if it wasn’t there?”

Codoni has never met a train system he doesn't like.

I've never heard anyone say that BART doesn't relieve traffic congestion, but it's unlikely that a significant number of people need to commute between Santa Rosa and San Rafael.

The only unanswered question is how much public money will be required to subsidize the operation of the SMART system.

This train will be an updated version of the Napa Valley wine train, since it has "a snack bar that will serve local wines and craft beer."

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At 5:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"it's unlikely that a significant number of people need to commute between Santa Rosa and San Rafael"

There are already thousands who commute between Novato/Petaluma/Santa Rosa just to Larkspur Ferry. And thousands from Petaluma/Novato to Airport Business Center in Santa Rosa. Those are hard stats. You are just making an uneducated guess from your living room nowhere near the North Bay

At 9:15 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Okay, let's see the "hard stats." Are there enough such commuters to support the SMART system? Richard Hall has a skeptical analysis.

But even if his numbers are wrong, it seems fanciful that a significant number of people will commute from, say, Santa Rosa to Larkspur Landing to then catch a ferry to San Francisco, a long, expensive commute that, even with traffic congestion, could be done faster, cheaper, and door-to-door in a car---or more directly by bypassing SMART on a Golden Gate Transit bus into the city.

Will there be many commuters between San Rafael, Santa Rosa, and San Francisco? No doubt there are some, but enough to support the system or to noticeably affect traffic on highway 101? There are now more than 360,000 vehicles daily on this part of 101. I guess we'll see.

One thing SMART's supporters are just now coming to grips with is the traffic congestion the system will cause in downtown San Rafael around the the terminal just off 101. During commute hours 101 traffic already backs up from San Rafael onto 101. That will be aggravated by several San Rafael train crossings, including the one at the terminal. Safety gates will be lowered and traffic in downtown San Rafael will be delayed.

The SMART train is like an accelerated experiment that will quickly demonstrate the folly of building the high-speed rail system. Like the high-speed rail project was sold to the state's voters, the SMART system was sold to voters of Marin and Sonoma County with an exaggerated notion of the benefits and a minimized sense of the costs and unintended consequences.

The SMART system will end up as an updated version of the Napa Valley wine train, appealing mostly to tourists and day trippers that want to go on a train ride. The question is how much it will cost taxpayers to subsidize. The Napa wine train charges passengers $50, which of course SMART can't match. The more expensive the tickets, the fewer passengers the system will have.

The high-speed rail project struggles with the issues of the number of passengers and ticket prices as shown in these briefing notes by the Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail.

At 4:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thinking about the future when the so-called "smart" train inevitably fails - could the tracks be converted into extra lanes for the 101 to help alleviate the current congestion and pollution that Marin and Sonoma currently suffer from?

At 3:37 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

No. The rail tracks are west of Highway 101 and a lot of it is near wetlands that will be inundated as global warming raises the sea level. Only a massive landfill project could make more space for traffic lanes.

At 3:39 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

A response to the first anonymous comment: I grew up in Marin County and visit often enough to know the traffic problems there. Still waiting for those "hard stats" on future ridership on SMART.

At 9:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Only a massive landfill project could make more space for traffic lanes."

Time to start planning now, then.


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