Capdiamont\’s Weblog

PAC Guest Editorial: Streetcars are not the way to go
Sunday 16 Mar 2008, 07:08
Filed under: NCRA, Railroad, SMART

Generally, the idea is due to US law and regulations, it limits what can run at the same time as freight. Light rail/streetcars can’t run on the same rails as freight.

Published: Thursday, Mar 13, 2008


As delightful as streetcars are in local short-haul service, they would be inappropriate for our 316-mile North-western Pac-ific Railroad. Opting for streetcars instead of passenger trains would lock out other rail services that are needed for environmental and economic reasons and would doom the entire North Coast to permanent dependence on noisy, dangerous and ecologically unsustainable highways.

Arguments against using modern passenger trains often rely on belittling the railroad’s viability as a full-service carrier. It’s not true, for example, that the NWP would be in operation today if it were still a viable freight railroad. Southern Pacific chose to divest itself of subsidiaries for reasons of its own. Lower overhead allows short-line and regional operators to operate profitably.

But NWP’s future is not dependent on freight alone. Tourist trains are money-makers, as was dramatically demonstrated in the 1980s between Willits and Eureka and in 1996-97 between Healdsburg and Willits. When the railroad was shut down in 1998, the tourist train operators were holding 10,000 requests for tickets. The NWP has a strong potential to become the nation’s most successful tourist/ex-cursion railroad.

SMART’s corridor is 70 miles long. Passengers riding 60 or 70 miles have a right to expect the best in comfort, quiet and amenities, such as an onboard restroom in every railcar. Caltrain and ACE provide these benefits, and SMART should give its riders as much. SMART passenger trains must be able to operate at speeds up to 80 mph to be competitive with driving. Unlike streetcars, modern regional passenger trains can share track with freight, tourist and intercity (think Amtrak) trains in the same time frame, whereas streetcars cannot. Our railroad’s great full-service potential fuels the highway lobby’s attacks.

Cost comparisons are meaningless unless related to what our dollars buy. Light rail vehicles do not have the lowest capital costs per passenger seat or the lowest operating and maintenance costs per passenger mile or even the lowest weight per passenger seat.

Light rail vehicles are ideal for cities and for distances up to 15 or 20 miles from a city center. SMART is considering the light rail option, but has a responsibility to spend taxpayers’ dollars wisely.

Extending a light rail line from Marin to the city over a second deck added to the Golden Gate Bridge requires a gigantic engineering project to bring the right of way up to bridge level and through the Presidio and the Marina to connect with Muni light rail. Let’s use light rail where it works best, in projects like the Water Street trolley, and give SMART passengers the most comfortable, quiet, and pleasant ride we can.

(Lionel Gambill lives in Novato and spearheaded a proposal to operate heritage streetcars on Fourth Street in Santa Rosa.)

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