The Future of Passenger Rail in the Bay Area

Background: By the late 1960’s the Bay Area’s interurban passenger rail systems were mostly gone. Since then travelers, encouraged by the State of California’s long standing practice of widening and expanding its freeways to temporarily ward off gridlock, have turned increasingly to their private automobiles to get around in the Bay Area: to the point where things are now out of hand. California’s myopic confidence that it could build its way out of traffic congestion failed.

It didn’t take long for urbanites to recognize the damage being done to the Bay Area by an ever growing 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, except for BART (more about BART below), the non-automotive alternatives 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. His successor arrived 20 minutes late with four MTC staffers in tow and angrily broke up the meeting, saying that regional coordination was a MTC responsibility and that it would soon be attending to the matter.

That was over 40 years ago. Today MTC is much more powerful than it was then but the transit properties are still performing 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 projects submitted as “regional transportation plans” eligible for State and federal funding agency approval. The Result: Non-automotive transportation systems continue languish and the traffic gets worse and worse.

Bay Area Passenger Rail -Today’s Challenges:

Over the last 40 years, the Greater Bay Area has experienced many major transportation mistakes and lost opportunities. As a result tens of billions of scarce transportation dollars have been wasted. However, rather than focus on the past, this paper will seek to identify the best current and future possibilities.
The challenge is how to expand and integrate the Region’s rail and other transit systems to render Bay Area non-automotive travel comfortable, secure, convenient and reliable. The objective is to make the Region’s rail, bus and ferry boat services as useful and appealing to riders and would-be riders as possible. Following are some improvements that could fit into such a program:

BART:  In 2017 the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, “the transportation work horse of the Bay Area”, averaged 429,000 riders a weekday. BART operates on its own exclusive right-of-way and is therefore usually quite reliable. However, for a variety of reasons quality of the ride is not as good as it could be. Until recently BART often seemed more focused on politically-inspired extension demands than in attending to its core system. Here are several specific factors that deserve attention:

a) The BART trip. Because of lax discipline BART fare evasion and inappropriate on-car behavior has increased. Enforcement should be stepped up. The smoothness and quality of the ride as well as the interior noise level need attention. A number of BART stations are sandwiched between freeway lanes. Portions of the platform levels of these stations should be shielded from freeway noise.

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 should receive a high priority. See “Capital Corridor” below.

c) On May 24th the BART Board appropriately rejected the proposed 5 mile, $1.6 billion BART extension from the existing East Dublin terminal to Isabel Avenue in Livermore. The extension’s projected additional ridership of 11,900 riders a day didn’t come even close to justifying the $1.6 billion cost expenditure. Livermore however does deserve a secure, comfortable, reliable and expeditious bus access system similar to the privately-operated hi-tech bus operations that connect Silicon Valley to various other parts of the Bay Area. Available Measure BB and RM3 funds would pay for the immediate development of such a system. None of the Tri Valley or San Joaquin County rail alternatives under discussion are either cost-effective or fundable.

Caltrain: When the newly electrified Caltrain system reaches San Francisco’s new Sales Force Terminal at First and Mission it will meet 10 other rail lines and over 40 bus lines. It will also bring passenger rail service within easy walking distance of San Francisco’s bustling financial center and over 20,000 units of transit-oriented housing. The Caltrain extension (DTX) will significantly improve regional transit connectivity and therefore deserves a high priority. MTC, San Francisco County and the other benefiting counties should get behind DTX and get the job done!

There are currently 29 stops along the 78 mile Caltrain line. In some places the stops are too close to one another. Consideration should be given to thinning out the stops where appropriate.

Altamont Pass HSR Route: The High Speed Rail (HSR) route from the San Joaquin to the Bay Area should be via the Altamont Pass rather than the Pacheco Pass. Here are three advantages:

a) It would bring the San Joaquin Valley high speed line 70 miles closer to Sacramento, thereby cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from the future cost of extending HSR to Sacramento

b) It would reduce the costs of upgrading the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE: see below) by at least $8 billion.

c) It would parallel I-580, thereby giving commuters and other travelers a reliable and expeditious alternative to driving or using BART’s already over-crowded system.

d) Is the California High Speed Rail Authority likely to make this switch? No. Another significant transportation improvement opportunity blown.

ACE: Today the Altamont Commuter Express 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 86 miles between the two ends of the line and therefore attracts only a dismally low 4,900 riders per weekday. This is not acceptable; the one way ACE trip time should be reduced to no more than one hour. Speeding up the service to achieve this objective would require the straightening of some portions of the line and some tunneling in Niles Canyon.

Developing an effective non-automotive way of traveling between the north end of the San Joaquin Valley and Silicon Valley remains an important Northern California need. Unfortunately, absent an Altamont HSR alignment through Niles Canyon, the upgrading of ACE appears to be prohibitively expensive and won’t occur unless demand for the service grows substantially.

If a major ACE upgrade is not possible, there should be direct BART service between the East Dublin BART station and San Jose’s Diridon station via a Wye connection in Hayward. Some trains from East Dublin would go north into Oakland and beyond and others would go south into Silicon Valley.

Capital Corridor: Capitol Corridor trains currently run along the 168- mile existing line between Auburn California through Sacramento and Oakland and San Jose’s Diridon Station. Today, 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.

Train1One of the most important changes 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 to the more direct existing alignment through Newark. BART, soon to be extended into downtown San Jose, would continue to serve eastern Hayward. As part of the upgrade program, the pedestrian connection at the Oakland Coliseum Station between Main Line trains and BART would become easier, faster and more efficient. Other Capitol Corridor improvements include increased operating speeds where possible, better connections to intersecting rail lines and better ticket integration.

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 alternative 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 via the Dumbarton Bridge to the West Bay.


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 crossing trains would be at the point where the four lines connect near Baine Avenue and Sycamore Street in downtown Newark.

To create an ACE to BART transfer capability in Fremont there has been talk of adding an ACE stop north of the Fremont BART station and connecting the two systems via a pedestrian walkway or shuttle bus service. While the current demand for such a transfer at this location is not high, this proposal warrants attention
Union City’s proposal to detouring ACE trains 2.7 miles off-line for a stop at the Union City BART Station would severely reduce the usefulness of the ACE service between the eastern Alameda County and Santa Clara County. It should therefore also be rejected.

Routing the Dumbarton rail shuttle service via Decoto Road would both compound conditions on that already congested thoroughfare and discourage those who might otherwise transfer between ACE and the Dumbarton Shuttle. The Decoto proposal should also be rejected .

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

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.

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

Bay Area Passenger Rail: Future Opportunities:

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 greatly improved access to the lands being developed to the south of the tracks along the Oakland Estuary.

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

Second Subaqueous Rail Tube Between Oakland and San Francisco: This proposal is already being discussed. However, getting a new transbay rail tube complete with connecting subways on both sides of the Bay ready for revenue service is at least 4 to 6 decades away. Regarding it as a near term attribute is unfortunately distracting planners from focusing the more immediate improvement opportunities available to them, some of which are outlined above.

ACE Upgrade:  If present trends continue, cities like Stockton in the north end of the Central Valley will grow substantially as the cheaper cost of housing attracts people working elsewhere in the Bay Area, and particularly in Silicon Valley. The more this happens the more important it will become to significantly speed up and otherwise upgrade ACE so as to provide fast and reliable passenger rail access to the Region’s major employment centers.

UC Berkeley to JLS Rail Connection: Running in the medians of Telegraph Avenue and Broadway, a diesel-operated or electrified surface rail line should provide 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 twenty AC Transit cross-town bus lines.

CitiesGeary Rail Service Line: The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s (SFMTA’s) proposed Geary Corridor bus rapid transit system should be replaced with a diesel-operated or electrified rail line.

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

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 with an Amtrak Station in Solano County.

MTC’s Role:  Many of the projects and proposals listed above are regional in nature. Yet MTC steadfastly refuses to define them as such. MTC’s strong aversion to taking a lead role in advancing regional transportation projects and in resolving regional transportation problems is one of the causes of the Bay Area’s current unsatisfactory transportation condition. This needs to change.

Gerald Cauthen, PE
Former Transportation Vice President, Parsons Brinkckerhoff
Former Manager of Transit Systems, Korve Engineering
Former Deputy Director, TTC/DTX program
Chair, Bay Area Transportation Working Group
For more information about BATWG go to