Capdiamont\’s Weblog

PAC guest: Streetcars are the way to go
Thursday 6 Mar 2008, 07:37
Filed under: NCRA, Railroad, SMART

Published: Thursday, Mar 6, 2008By GARY MARSH

After two decades of false starts, a decision on the future of the Northwest-ern Pacific Railroad appears to be in the cards. The North Bay is indeed fortunate that the right of way even exists today to bicker about. It is a lucky legacy of the 19th century railroad construction boom, prior to competition from trucks on public highways. We are fortunate that it avoided abandonment during the Depression and fortunate again that the political will was found to finally put it in the public trust. It is time, however, to recognize the harsh truth that if the NWP were still a viable freight railroad it would be in operation today.

Let us turn the page on the NWP’s glorious common carrier past and and convert the line to a regional public transit operation. I propose using modern articulated electric streetcars (aka light rail) on the same initial route proposed by SMART from Larkspur to Cloverdale. Clearly the optimal southern end of the line ought to be San Francisco, via a second deck on the Golden Gate Bridge and a joint subway operation with S.F. Muni. The northern extension of the line would depend on interest from Mendocino County. Recent light rail cars have been designed for 70 mph operation, more than adequate for interurban service to Ukiah.

Modern streetcars have much to recommend them, starting with a history of 120 years of efficient and reliable service. Electric motors powered by overhead trolley wires afford zero emissions, fast acceleration and the option of recapturing energy through regenerative braking. Light rail is more operationally flexible than heavy rail and can be incrementally upgraded as funds become available. For example, converting to modern streetcars would make it feasible to construct a new freeway-style span over the Petaluma River south of town replacing the cumbersome low bridge. This type of structure would be out of the question for heavy rail.

Streetcars are back to stay. Light rail cars are now being marketed by a number of major manufacturers around the world, with standardized designs once again being produced in quantity like buses. At least one of these companies has a railcar plant located in California. Multiple bidders means that streetcars, while more expensive than buses, will have a sticker price that is definitely competitive with that of the heavy railway equipment that SMART would use. Light rail cars are designed for a much longer service life than buses, carry more passengers per vehicle, and can be quickly coupled into multiple unit trains.

There is an intangible appeal particular to electric railways, a cachet that some have termed the “sparks effect.” Modern streetcars offer a smooth, stable ride that is distinctively different from that of a bus. Light rail attracts passengers who would otherwise not use public transit. Many new light rail systems are being built around the world, even in small cities not much bigger than Santa Rosa. The list of successful light rail startups in the Western U.S. keeps getting longer — San Francisco (the only legacy), San Diego, Sacramento, Portland, Salt Lake City, and last month, Seattle.

While hoping the North Bay can be added to this list in my lifetime, I strongly recommend supporting SMART’s November initiative in the meantime. It is crucial to take action to maintain the trackage and protect the right of way from encroachment. It would be a great victory for the highway lobby if the NWP right of way were destroyed. In time we will find out if the NWP can survive in the real world of shortline railroads. If not, as I am convinced, SMART truly needs to reconsider the light rail option.

(Gary Marsh has lived in Petaluma with his family since 1979 and is a retired U.S. Postal employee.)

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