Not even two months old, SMART offers vital service to fire-ravaged area

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Sunday, October 15, 2017

I wrote a profile for the July issue of Trains of Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART), the culmination of a ten-year effort to bring passenger trains back to the North Bay area of Northern California after a half-century absence using some innovative approaches in the North American commuter rail space. Yesterday, while visiting the Bay Area for a reunion of the Millennial Trains Project (about whose 2014 crowd-funded transcontinental journey I blogged here), I had an opportunity to take my first ride on SMART — which remained in service (with its northernmost two stations closed) in spite of devastating nearby wildfires. 

Two SMART trains meet at downtown San Rafael station, the line's current southern terminus, under a sky turned orange with fire smoke around 5 PM on Oct. 12. All photos by Malcolm Kenton.
As promised, the trip between San Rafael (seat of Marin County) and Santa Rosa (seat of Sonoma County) takes almost exactly one hour, and the two-car articulated Nippon Sharyo DMUs rode very smoothly, hitting the maximum speed of 79 mph on several stretches of newly-built welded rail with concrete ties. Meets between trains going opposing directions at one of the five sidings were well-timed. The scenery is varied and interesting, from tidal marshes to farms, rolling hills, small towns and suburban backyards. 

The on-board WiFi and power outlets worked well throughout the trip. Sadly, the on-board coffee shop (operated by a nonprofit community development organization under contract to the SMART District) is closed until further notice as many of the organization’s employees were affected by the wildfires, some losing their homes. But when it reopens, it will serve coffee, tea, soft drinks, beer and wine, as well as a few pastries and snacks.

Interior of a northbound SMART train on Oct. 12.
The passengers on board my trains, which were free of charge to help in fire recovery, swapped stories about how the fires had affected them and expressed gratitude for the train being in operation. When a local friend and I walked around downtown Santa Rosa and visited the visitors’ center inside the historic Northwestern Pacific depot (we were lucky that we caught the first afternoon of clear air there in a week), we were thanked for visiting in spite of the fires, and a couple that had set up a food stand on a street corner offered us free hot grilled cheese sandwiches. Out of the numerous statues of Peanuts characters in the historic center of Charles Schultz’s hometown, one in the likeness of Snoopy near the depot has him as the Flying Ace wearing a SMART conductor’s hat.

Perhaps the biggest story since SMART’s formal opening on Aug. 25 has been the degree to which ridership has eclipsed initial projections. Passenger numbers over its first three weeks of operation exceeded estimates by over 7,000. Weekday patronage has been, on average, 600 passengers more than expected, while SMART’s five weekend round-trips have been tremendously more popular than anticipated. The conductor on one of the trains I rode exclaimed this to me when I told him I had written an article on SMART.

A SMART train pauses at downtown Santa Rosa station, next to the historic Northwestern Pacific depot, now containing a California visitors' center and a NWP Railroad Historical Society display with small HO-scale layout.
Each weekend day in the first three weeks saw an average of 2,600 people board SMART trains, compared to the 300 daily weekend riders predicted. SMART management is struggling to figure out how to accommodate the number of bicyclists bringing their wheels on board, which is often greater than the four bicycle hooks on each train can handle. It has been hard for management to see a pattern to ridership so far — some weekdays are busier than others.

Snoopy wearing a SMART conductors uniform in downtown Santa Rosa.
It is obvious that the people of an area that has long been without passenger trains has gravitated to a travel choice that offers an alternative to increasingly congested US Highway 101, the only north-south through route through the counties on which buses face the same delays as private vehicles. The bike trail paralleling the line, which is also maintained by the SMART District, is nearing completion — I saw only one small segment still under construction while the rest appeared to be finished. 

As long as community backing remains strong and the needed state, federal and local funding materializes to complete the planned extensions southward to the Larkspur ferry terminal and northward to Cloverdale, I expect SMART to settle in as a well-used component of the region’s transportation fabric, easing congestion on the 101 in the process.

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