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On resurrecting the rail in the US, the rest of the world

Ridership on US rail is reaching record highs. A community north of San Francisco fights to bring back a century old rail line.

From 2007 to 2008, Amtrak has seen a 12% increase in ridership and vacation travel has jumped by 28%. Light rail and commuter rail in many cities across the country have experienced double digit jump in users: Charlotte, NC (34%), Seattle (27.9%), Minneapolis (16.4%), Oakland, CA (15.8%).

“We are at the cusp of a ‘renaissance’ for intercity passenger rail in this nation,” says chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee James Oberstar, but moving into a new generation of passenger rail may hinge on funding for aging and inadequate systems.

Oberstar, who authored a bill- the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act- to raise Amtrak operating funds, claims that the rail travel trend “is going to be held back because so many trains are sold out.”

If Oberstar’s bill becomes law, not only will Amtrak be given more funding, but states will be given 80 percent match to help states create or improve passenger rail service Plans to extend US rail service nationally and locally are gaining momentum: bills to improve funding for Amtrak passed in both houses of the Senate and the federal government may begin to match state spending by 80% for rail projects.

In many states, rail proposals that have been seeking support for years are finding increased interest, like California High Speed Rail or Northern California’s SMART. SMART (Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit) is a proposal to resurrect 70 miles of abandoned track north of San Francisco which was barely defeated by voters in 2006. It is on the ballot again for November of 2008 and this time organizers believe the timing is right.

We talked to SMART’s Chris Coursey at the historic Santa Rosa Depot- location for Hitchcock’s 1904 “Shadow of a Doubt” and one of the 14 station stops along the route- about the train and 21st Century urban planning.

We’re in downtown Santa Rosa at the historic rail station that’s been here since a little after the turn of the century. This station survived the 1906 earthquake. This is the way that people used to get to Santa Rosa. What we’re trying to do at SMART is bring this rail line back to life.

faircompanies: Why isn’t this an easy thing to have happen?

“Chris Coursey: the main reason it isn’t easy is we need a sales tax increase to do the SMART project and in California sales tax increases take two-thirds vote. So 2 years ago this was on the ballot and we got 65.3% of the voters to say yes, which is a landslide in any other election, but we needed 66.7. So we need to get over that hump. About 1500 votes either way could have changed the outcome of that election. We were that close.”

I’m assuming you’ve done studies. What would the impact be of a train?

“First of all it would take close to a million and a half car trips off of Highway 101 every year. And Highway 101 is terribly congested: it’s the 4th most congested road in the Bay Area which is already a congested region.”

“So it takes people off the highway. It gives them a fast and reliable way to get back and forth. Right now you’d never know if it’s going to take you 45 minutes to go to Marin County or an hour and 45 minutes. So the reliability is there.”

“It’s got great environmental benefits. By getting people out of their cars, our environmental studies show that we’ll be removing 30 million pounds of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere every year just along this corridor.”

“The public owns this rail line. This is a valuable piece of infrastructure. The taxpayers own it. We’d love to put it back to use.”

Are the costs way up there for what it would cost compared to roads?

“Actually, we’ve done a lot of studies of this and because we already own the property, it’s a relative bargain. It’s not cheap to do this it’s about a 450 million dollar project, but on a per mile basis. We’re adding a lane to Highway 101 now and the average price of adding that lane is about 20 million dollars a mile to add a lane to the freeway. The SMART project, the rail project, is about 6 million dollars a mile. So it’s a good deal for the money.”

“All that needs to be done to put trains on this track is to buy the train. To make it be able to go as fast as we want it to go which is 79mph top speed, the rail line needs to be rehabbed. We plan to replace the rails, replace all the ties, but essentially this rail line is ready to go. Freight trains could start running on this track tomorrow if they could get a couple of legal issues solved. For our train system, we want to upgrade the tracks to a higher level so the Federal Railroad Administration will let us go fast. So that’s the main work that needs to be done.”

“Also, the rail cars need to be built. We’re not talking about using existing locomotives that haul a bunch of cars. The vehicles we’re talking about putting on this track are called DMUs (Diesel Multiple Unit). They’re self-propelled, self-contained: the engines are on-board. They don’t have a locomotive hauling a line of cars. They’re fairly short and compact: they hold about two to three hundred people depending on whether it’s double-decked or not. And they have to be built. They don’t build those unless they have an order for them. There aren’t some sitting on a car lot somewhere that we can go buy. So rehabbing the rail lines and building the rail cars are the two things that need to happen.”

So what are we talking about then, what year will it be ready if the measure passes this fall?

“If it passes in November we’ll start collecting taxes in April of next year and it will take about 5 years to get it going after we start collecting taxes.”

People are feeling the crunch right now with gas prices, do you think that’s going to change things?

“I absolutely think it’s going to change things. Every time the price of gas ticks up a bit higher people get the idea of public transit. Ridership of train systems, bus systems, any kind of public transit is at record levels all over the country right now and it keeps going up. So people want it to happen right now. It’s going to take awhile to make it happen, but it’s going to happen the soonest if we get it done at the ballot boxes in November.”

Is there any kind of learning curve for people because some people haven’t taken a train before in the US?

“Yeah, well a lot of people aren’t used to taking public transit and our studies show that more people will use all kinds of public transit when the train is here because it’s attractive. You know, the romance of the rails type of thing brings people to a train when they wouldn’t necessarily take a bus that is serving the same route for them.”

“So when they start riding the train, getting used to using the ticket machines and getting used to being somewhere on a schedule, that’s not necessarily their own schedule, they’ll also start riding buses more too so all kinds of public transit will benefit from this.”

You mentioned the speed of the train, is that faster than the average speed of the highway, similar?

“I think the average speed of the highway depends on what day you’re going. Sometimes the speed seems like you’re stopped. It is faster than the average speed of the highway. You can get from here to there where this train is going in the same amount of time on the train if there isn’t any traffic, but more and more there’s traffic. And not just in the morning commute and the afternoon commute, but Saturdays and Sundays, in the middle of the day and for no particular reason in the middle of the night. A couple of weeks ago the highway shut down because some dairy cows got loose and a truck ran into a couple of them so the highway’s closed at 4 o’clock in the morning.”

Why is it so difficult to put a train in, we have the tracks, why is it so difficult?

“It’s expensive for one thing. You know people balk at the cost of transportation infrastructure. I don’t think they realize that we spend much more on roads. But roads they feel like they’re available anytime and I can see myself using them. For a lot of people, it’s harder to envision themselves using the train.”

“But as we go farther and farther into this new world that we’re entering. I think we are entering a new world with the price of gas and the awareness of climate change and the need to put fewer miles on our cars and spend less time on our highways. I think people are envisioning themselves more able to use public transit and trains our an attractive form of public transit that I think people will support.”

The town of Windsor, one of the station stops for the SMART train, has recently put $1.4 million into re-doing their train station. Has there been a lot of movement by local communities into prepping for this project?

“You mentioned the Windsor multi-modal transit system and there are people around here who are really forward thinking and they know that somehow someday or another this is going to be put back to use because it’s too valuable a resource to waste. A man named Brian Albee at the Sonoma County transit has been instrumental in creating new bus transit stations that are located on the rail line and are able to be modified to have a rail boarding platform along with the bus boarding platform so one day they’ll be able to work together.”

That actually seems to be a trend that people want to be closer to transit hubs.

“Transit hubs are becoming attractive for many reasons. One is just empty nesters, people who don’t have a lot of kids around and are looking to downsize a little bit, but they like the urban feel, they want to be close to a coffee shop or a news stand. And also people who want to rely on their car less.”

You mention this city changing with a rail line, do you see this being the future as people talk about walking cities and transit hubs?

“Absolutely. The New Urbanism movement is happening and it is the future because as cities grow and particularly cities like ours. This has been a typical California city that over the past 50 years has grown out and it’s gotten farther and farther out with sprawl and more and more dependent on cars. So people live in subdivisions and they can’t even walk to a grocery store. And people are beginning to recognize that that is not a sustainable model for growth.”

“People are starting to recognize that California is going to grow even if we don’t want that to happen. And there’s been a strong no growth or slow growth ethic in Sonoma County ever since I’ve lived here, but it hasn’t really stopped or even slowed the growth very much just it’s made it less dense is what’s happened and that just creates more sprawl. People recognize now that more dense development in the urban core that has public transit available and infrastructure available is the way of the future.”

“There are great plans for revival of this whole area around the station. It’s not just a rail project. You’ve got a 5 acre site here that will become a transit-oriented development project with multi-use buildings: residential, retail, office and commercial. There’ll be a plaza here. This will become a center of the city again, a real activity center.”

So many communities around the train stations seem a bit spread out. Do you think enough people live and work close enough to the train stations that they will be accessible?

“The rail line won’t be by itself. It’s a backbone of a whole transportation system and buses will have to connect with it. We have shuttles proposed as part of our project, that we’ll be paying for, that will take people out to schools, job centers or hospitals or shopping areas. Also, our project includes a 70 mile parallel bicycle pedestrian path which will also be part of the transportation project. It will be a recreational path and also a transportation path. And that’s the way a lot of people will get to our stations as well.”

“We’re looking at a ridership at startup of about 6000 a day. People ask is that enough. Well it is enough based on our financing projections. We can do it with 6000 a day, we expect that to grow. And truthfully we expect that to be higher than that pretty quickly, who knows what gas prices will be 5 years from now.”