Bay Area Rail – Status Report


OldRailBy the late 1960’s the Bay Area’s interurban passenger rail systems were mostly gone. Since then travelers, encouraged by the State State of California’s long standing practice of widening and expanding its freeways to temporarily ward off gridlock, have turned increasingly to automobiles to get around: to the point where things got completely out of hand. Caltrans’ myopic struggle to build its way out of traffic congestion failed.

InsideViewIt didn’t take long for urbanites to recognize the damage being done to the Bay Area by an ever expanding highway system. In the early 1960’s San Franciscans mounted a mighty campaign that successfully prevented their city from being chopped up by freeways. By the early 1970’s people in the Bay Area were talking about how to bring the Region back into transportation balance. Unfortunately there was no local or regional governmental follow-up. The freeways continued to dominate and the non-automotive alternatives (except for BART…more about BART below) remained in a state of stagnation.

In the late 1960’s, the State Legislature created the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) which began operations in 1971. But nothing changed. For a few years, Paul Watt, MTC’s first Director, patiently and persistently tried to build support for a regional transportation approach to what was clearly a regional problem. And he was making headway. In the mid-1970’s, in response to a letter signed jointly by San Francisco George Moscone and President of the SF Board of Supervisors Quentin Kopp, every major public and private transportation operator in the Region; (namely Muni, BART, AC Transit, Golden Gate Transit, Samtrans, the VTA, Southern Pacific and Greyhound) assembled in San Francisco, ready to talk regional coordination. The charge was to how to make the non-automotive modes of travel more attractive and more useful to more travelers. MTC was also invited but by this time Mr. Watt was gone. Mr. Watt’s successor arrived 20 minutes late to break up the meeting, saying that regional coordination was MTC’s responsibility and that he would soon be attending to the matter.

That was 40 years ago.

Since then tens of billions of transportation dollars have been spent in the Bay Area, and MTC now is much more powerful now than it was then. But the transit properties still perform inadequately and the Bay Area is mired in more traffic than ever. MTC takes no responsibility for this and instead continues to broker deals among local political cabals, the result being cobbled-together clumps of parochial projects submitted as “regional plans” in pursuit of voter approval or State and federal funding.

The need to return transportation balance to the Bay Area is stronger now than ever. This means first of all, effective expansion and better integration of the Region’s rail, bus and ferry boat services as required to render non-automotive travel safe, secure, comfortable, convenient and reliable. The following high-priority programs and future possibilities are presented with that objective in mind:

High Priority Programs:

1. BART: In 2017 the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, sometimes called “the transportation work horse of the Region”, averaged 429,000 riders a weekday. BART operates on its own exclusive right-of-way and is usually quite reliable. However, until recently BART often seemed more focused on politically-inspired extensions than in attending to its core system. Here are some needed improvements:

a) The BART ride should be smoother and less noisy. Some BART platforms are unfortunately sandwiched in between freeway lanes. BART riders waiting in the canopied portions of these platforms should be and could easily be shielded from the incessant adjacent traffic noise. Because of lax discipline, fare evasion and bad on-car behavior have increased. Enforcement should be stepped up.

b) BART and the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority (CCJPA) have come up with an impressive set of proposals to upgrade the Capitol Corridor service. This plan deserves a high priority. See “Capital Corridor” below.

c) On May 24th the BART Board appropriately rejected the over-priced 5 mile BART extension from the existing East Dublin terminal to Isabel Avenue in Livermore. Under no circumstances could a projected ridership increase of only 14,000 riders a day justify the expenditure of $1.6 billion. More reasonable would be the development of a safe, comfortable, reliable and convenient bus access system, comprised of both regular service and demand-responsive service, similar to the privately-operated hi-tech buses that connect Silicon Valley to other parts of the Region. Alameda County Measure BB funds are available to pay for a substantially upgraded bus system. None of the rail alternatives under discussion would serve Livermore as well as a substantially upgraded but cheaper bus system would.

2. Caltrain Downtown Extension (DTX): When the newly electrified Caltrain system reaches San Francisco’s new Sales Force Terminal at First and Mission it will connect with 10 other passenger rail lines and over 40 bus lines.

The lower level of Berlin’s main railway station:  When the trains arrive, the Transbay Transit Center could look something like this. Photo: Wikimedia Commons StreetsblogSF June 16, 2017

It will also bring passenger rail service to within easy walking distance of San Francisco’s bustling financial center and over 20,000 units of transit-oriented housing. San Francisco, the Southbay, the Peninsula and all of Northern California will benefit from this important nexus of Bay Area transit services.   DTX deserves much more attention and higher regional priority than it’s been getting.

3. ACE: Today the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) operates between Stockton and San Jose at an average speed of 39 miles an hour along an often meandering alignment. As a result it takes two hours and 12 minutes to travel the 86 track miles between the two ends of the line and therefore attracts a dismally low 4,900 riders per weekday. In 2018 this is not acceptable. The average ACE speed should be at least doubled, which would reduce the total one-way ACE trip time to no more than one hour and 6 minutes. Speeding up the service to achieve this objective would require straightening some portions of the alignment and tunneling in portions of Niles Canyon.

If present trends continue, Northern Central Valley cities will grow substantially as cheaper housing costs attracts newcomers and people forced out of inner Bay Area housing by high costs. The more this happens the more the region will need a speeded-up ACE system. Developing an effective non-automotive way of traveling between the Tri-Valley/San Joaquin Valley areas and Silicon Valley remains a critically important Northern California transportation priority.

4. Capital Corridor: Capitol Corridor trains currently operate on a 168-mile alignment between Auburn via Sacramento and Oakland to  San Jose’s Diridon Station.

CapitalCoordToday, the service is much more reliable and convenient than it used to be. The Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority (CCJPA) with BART as its day-to-day manager and Amtrak as its Operator is planning further improvements.

One of the most important of these would cut the trip time between Oakland and San Jose to just 30 minutes by relocating Capitol Corridor service from the current detour through eastern Hayward and Union City to the more direct existing alignment through Newark. BART…soon to be extended into downtown San Jose…would continue to serve eastern Hayward and Union City. As part of the upgrade program, the pedestrian connection at the Oakland Coliseum Station between the Amtrak trains and BART would become much easier and more convenient. Other planned Capitol Corridor improvements include increased operating speeds, better connections to intersecting rail lines and better ticket integration.

5. Dumbarton Rail Crossing:  Commuters and others who must use the Dumbarton Highway Bridge every day, whether in buses or in their cars, are trapped in Highway 84 gridlock. If they detour to the south they run into I-880 and I-237 gridlock. If they detour to the north they encounter Highway 92 gridlock. In order to give travelers a reliable and comfortable way of crossing the south end of the Bay, the Dumbarton Rail Bridge should be restored or rebuilt to facilitate a Caltrain branch line extended from the Caltrain Redwood City Station to the Union City BART Station. Later, if and when ACE is upgraded, an ACE branch line could travel on the same tracks to the West Bay.


6. Southeast Bay Connection Alternatives:  With the Capitol Corridor trains relocated to the existing alignment through Newark (already used by Coast Starlight trains), the ideal location for a connecting station to serve the Starlight, Capitol Corridor, ACE and Dumbarton trains would be at the point where the four lines intersect near Baine Avenue and Sycamore Street in downtown Newark.

There has been talk of creating a transfer connection between ACE and BART just north of the Fremont BART station. The demand for an ACE/BART transfer at this location does not appear to be high enough to warrant such a connection.  Union City’s proposal to detour ACE trains 2.7 miles off-line for a stop at the Union City BART Station would make the through trip between Stockton and San Jose significantly longer and should therefore be rejected. Routing the Dumbarton rail shuttle service via Decoto Road would both further congest Decoto and eliminate the ACE/Dumbarton Shuttle connection. The Decoto proposal should therefore also be rejected .

7. SMART: A high priority should be placed on extending the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit system to the Larkspur Ferry Terminal and providing a fast and convenient way of transferring between trains and ferry boats.

8. Contra Costa County:  The same high bus operating standards proposed for Livermore (see BART Section “c” above) should be applied to the feeder bus lines serving BART in Contra Costa County. Consideration should be given to extending BART’s popular new DMU line farther to the east.

9. Bicycles: Adequate secure bicycle storage should be provided at all train station.

Longer Range Programs:

1. Oakland’s Main Line:  Depressing the 1.3 mile section of Main Line between Lindon and Fallon Streets would yield a variety of benefits, including more expeditious freight rail and passenger travel through downtown Oakland, reduced conflicts between traffic and trains and better access to the substantial new residential development along the Estuary.

2. Oakland Amtrak/BART Connection:  In West Oakland there should be a transfer-only connection between the Main Line and BART instead of the difficult-to-access Emeryville Station. This would cut the Capitol Corridor trip time to San Francisco by 20 minutes and to downtown Oakland by at least 10 minutes.

3. Second Subaqueous Rail Tube Between Oakland and San Francisco:  This proposal is currently a hot topic. However, given the glacial pace of Bay Area infrastructure development, getting a new transbay rail service, complete with connecting subways on both sides of the Bay up and running would take at least a half century. Treating it as a near term improvement is unfortunately distracting planners from focusing on needed early-action improvement, some of which are outlined above.

4. High Speed Rail (HSR) Access Alignment: A few years ago, pressured by South Bay promoters, MTC foolishly agreed to switch the HSR Bay Area access route from the Altamont Pass alignment through Tri-Valley and Niles Canyon, to an alignment through the Pacheco Pass wilderness 50 miles to the south.  With the Altamont HSR route it would be relatively straightforward to upgrade ACE.  With the Pacheco HSR route the upgrading of ACE would cost at least 5 times more than with the Altamont route. An Altamont Pass HSR alignment including an upgraded ACE service would provide commuters and other travelers stalled on backed-up highways I-580, I-680, I-880, I-237, 84 and 92 high-class, passenger rail alternatives.  It would also ease pressures on BART’s already over-crowded system and reduce the cost of eventually extending HSR to Sacramento by an estimated $12 billion.  If MTC and the CAHSRA persist in favoring the Pacheco Alternative it will be because political meddling and an aversion to admitting error takes precedence over logic, practicality and good engineering.

5. UC Berkeley to JLS Rail Connection:  Running in the medians of Telegraph Avenue and Broadway, a diesel-operated (like SMART) or electrified surface rail line could provide high quality passenger rail service between Sather Gate in Berkeley and Jack London Square. Such a line would serve U.C. Berkeley, Uptown, the Kaiser Center, the Oakland Civic Center, Old Town, China Town, Jack London Square and the Amtrak Station. It would also pass three BART Stations and intersect with over 20 cross-town bus lines.

6. Geary Rail Service Line: S.F. City Hall should bite the bullet and replace the proposed Geary Corridor bus rapid transit system with a diesel-operated or electrified rail line.

7. Upgrading San Francisco’s Muni Metro: Thanks to an ill-advised SFPUC operational change in the 1990’s, the peak-period carrying capacity of the Muni Metro Market Street subway is now less than half of what it used to be and what the system was designed to carry. As San Francisco’s population increases the need to correct this error will grow ever more pressing.

image4      image1

8.Improving East-West Rail Connections in the Highway 37/I80 Corridors: To provide east-west travelers with a reliable and comfortable alternative to perpetually congested Highway 37, an east/west passenger rail line should connect the SMART service in Main and Sonoma Counties to eastern terminal at an Amtrak Station in Solano County.

Concluding Statement:

The collective ways of getting around in the Greater Bay Area have to get better. Regardless of which agency is operating them, the various non-automotive transit systems (trains, buses and boats) must be arranged to benefit ALL riders and would-be riders. The level of traffic strangulation that currently afflicts Bay Area cities for many hours of the day must be significantly reduced. Achieving these objectives will require fundamental changes in today’s approach to addressing and reacting to regional transportation and land use problems.

Most of the projects and proposals listed above are regional in nature. Yet the Bay Area regional planning agency’s refusal to define them as such and its passivity when confronted by regional problems has greatly damaged the Region and is one of the reasons for today’s gridlock. This needs to change.

This article was featured in Newsletter Issue 3. Click here to go back to the newsletter.