Going car-free for a rural traction ride

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Monday, June 01, 2015

As one who enjoys rail history and witnessing and riding aboard historic equipment, but also does not own a car and advocates a less automobile-dependent future in America, I find it somewhat ironic that so many railroad museums — even those that preserve urban transit equipment — are difficult to access without a car. A friend and I had to improvise in order to visit one of these, the Western Railway Museum near Suisun City, CA, during my visit to the Golden State this weekend.

The Western Railway Museum’s collection consists almost entirely of streetcars and electric interurban vehicles that operated in the San Francisco Bay Area. It operates streetcars on a 20-minute tour within its yard at Rio Vista Junction, and 1930s-build interurbans of Key System heritage on a 5.5-mile, 50-minute round-trip down a piece of the former Sacramento Northern Railway from Rio Vista Junction east to Pantano. The museum’s location surrounds a depot where interurban passengers from the Bay Area or Sacramento could transfer to buses bound for Rio Vista, 11 miles east, and other points. While the Museum’s line, now a stub-end branch, maintains a connection with the Union Pacific main line that hosts Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor to the west, there is no rail or bus transit that comes close to its rural site along State Highway 10. The closest point accessible by public conveyance is the Capitol Corridor station at Suisun City, 10 miles west.

Sacramento-bound Capitol Corridor train 732 makes the station stop at Suisun City, CA on May 30. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
My friend figured, correctly, that we would be able to get a ride at Suisun City from Uber, the smartphone app-based ride sharing service that matches individual drivers with riders, with payment handled through the app. A driver was six minutes away, and since Uber allows two users to split the fare, the fare came to just over $10 each. While taxis were also available, Uber and its competitors, Lyft and Sidecar, are generally less expensive, and their presence along with taxis is, in many cases, extending the reach of transit to make more car-free trips possible. Our other option was to drive a Zipcar (a shared car service) to the museum from an outlying BART station in Contra Costa County. The cost for both options worked out to be roughly comparable.

After spending two and a half hours enjoying the excursions (riding a 1936-built two-section articulated interurban car through fields of golden hay dotted by cattle, wind turbines and the occasional house or church) , gazing upon many generations of San Francisco streetcars, and perusing the gift shop, we tried to hail an Uber or Lyft from our phones, but none were within range. So my friend called an airport shuttle company, which said they would dispatch a van to pick us up in 30 minutes. The company initially quoted him a fare of $40, but after he told the dispatcher than we had just taken Uber for $20, he was able to negotiate the fare down to $30 ($15 each). This was at 4:30 PM, and the next westbound Capitol Corridor train was due to leave Suisun City at 5:19. The van picked us up at 5:07 and got us to Suisun City station at 5:21 — two minutes too late to catch the train, which departed right on-time.

The next westbound was due at 6:20 PM. The van took my friend on to stay with his fiancée, who was working at a music festival nearby, at a hotel five miles away, so I settled in to spend an hour at a station with only a handful of strip-mall shops within walking distance. I went to one and bought an It’s-It ice cream sandwich, a San Francisco specialty, then sat at the station, browsing Facebook and playing games on my phone. Around 6:00, the automated train status system made an announcement that the next westbound train was delayed, first due to “mechanical difficulties,” then due to “a track problem,” then due to “police activity.” In my experience, “police activity” has generally been used euphemistically for a tragic incident: a train striking either a trespasser or a pedestrian or a motor vehicle at a grade crossing. When this happens, it can be several hours before the train is allowed to resume its journey.

Key System car 187, built by Bethlehem Steel in Wilmington, DE in 1936, pauses at the end of the Western Railway Museum's excursion track at Pantano on May 30. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
I was only planning to take this train as far as Martinez, the next stop, to have dinner there, watch trains, and catch a glimpse of the small city’s semi-famous resident beavers. So as the clock drew towards 6:40 and the Amtrak reservations agent on the phone said the train had not moved since 6:00, I again looked to Uber. Luckily, a driver five minutes away agreed to give me a ride about 25 miles down Interstate 680 to Martinez. I got there at 7:10 at a cost of $50 — well more than the $12 unreserved Capitol Corridor fare — but got to spend an hour and 40 minutes in town before I was due to head back to Berkeley, where I was staying, on the 8:50 PM San Joaquin train. The delayed Capitol Corridor train wound up pulling into Martinez close to 8:00, the cause of its being halted just west of Davis never having been fully explained.

That train wound up being delayed 50 minutes, but I enjoyed watching three beavers cavort beneath the foot bridge near the station and had a couple of glasses of wine nearby, so I was unfazed by the further delay. The San Joaquin train wound up being equipped with the State of California’s only set of retrofitted ex-New Jersey Transit Comet coaches with a Horizon cafe car, which I was glad to experience a brief ride aboard. I hopped off at Richmond, transferred to BART, and made it to the friend’s house where I was staying, a 15-minute walk from the Ashby station, at 11:00 PM. 

If my friend and I had taken the Zipcar round-trip, the excursion would have almost certainly taken less time, and we may have been able to stop over in Martinez as well. But doing it the way we did was more fun and brought some serendipity. Getting to certain places without driving is a challenge, and one must accept giving up a degree of control over one’s schedule, but the experience can be rewarding.

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