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Now I know every once in a while somebody gets a crazy idea to make the line viable all the way to Humboldt, most of which involve gravel, containers, donkeys, etc. But has anyone ever considered that what would be most likely to open the line is not freight at all? I'm not talking an excursion train. I'm not talking about bringing back the North Coast Daylight or the Budd car from the dead here. I'm talking about intercity rail here. Something bigger than just the Eel River Canyon. I'm talking about introducing the line to what is quite possibly the only railroad more controversial both politically and amongst railfans than the NWP itself.

I'm talking about Amtrak.

CTDX 2052 marches down the streets of Oakland. Photo: Paul Sullivan

Not really Amtrak themselves, but the California Department of Transportation Division of Rail, aka Amtrak California, which will be referred to henceforth as CDTX (their reporting mark) for convenience.  For those who don't know, CDTX runs passenger trains in the State of California using Amtrak crews and facilities (They also have their own equipment, which is often mixed with Amtrak owned rolling stock and engines), but is actually a separate entity from Amtrak, although the trains run under the Amtrak umbrella. The main difference between Amtrak and CDTX is that CDTX receives its subsidy from the state, whereas Amtrak is subsidized by the federal government.

CDTX operates three rail routes:

Capitol Corridor: 14 daily trains between Sacramento and Oakland. Seven of those trains continue south of Oakland to San Jose, and one continues east of Sacramento to Auburn. Third highest ridership of any Amtrak route.

San Joaquin: 6 daily trains between Bakersfield and Stockton, two of which continue north to Sacramento. The other four continue west to Oakland.

Pacific Surfliner: 12 trips between Los Angeles and San Diego. Trains run at 90mph for much of the trip. Three trains continue to Santa Barbara/Goleta. Two more continue to San Luis Obisbo, although the long term plan is to replace these two trains with the new Coast Daylight. The Pacific Surfliner has the second highest ridership of any Amtrak route.

Note: The five Amtrak long distance routes operating in California receive no state subsidy. These are: California Zephyr, Coast Starlight, Southwest Chief, Sunset Limited, and Texas Eagle.

 

In addition to these trains, CDTX contracts with various bus companies to provide "Thruway" feeder service to its trains. Because of a federal law, passengers on these buses are required to have rail portion as part of their journey. One route we will be looking at in particular is Motorcoach Route 7:

Route 7

You see that? Route 7 more or less parallels the NWP, at least until Willits. Route 7 has two daily round trips between the Martinez Amtrak Station and McKinleyville, north of Arcata. Another round trip terminates in Santa Rosa, and two more branch off after Vallejo and go to Napa.

Route 7 buses wait in Martinez. Photo: Chris "LA Wad"

Does anyone here think converting Route 7 to rail would be possible or viable? It would require the state to fund the major repairs needed to reopen the line, although in a sense, they already own it. CDTX has shown that it will go above and beyond what most state agencies are willing to do for passenger rail. They have paid for the double tracking of a lot of the Capitol Corridor route, and even pay employee wages to Union Pacific for an extra track gang. CDTX has also invested heavily in extra sidings on the BNSF for the San Joaquin trains, and even paid to upgrade the entire line to CTC. They are in the process of double tracking much of the Surfliner route, and upgrading tracks to allow 110mph running.

Future projects include:

Additional sidings and CTC on UP's coast line for two daily Coast Daylights.

Restoration of second track over Donner Pass to allow Capitol Corridor trains to run to Reno/Sparks.

Extending San Joaquins to Los Angeles. This will require the double tracking of Tehachapi Pass to be paid jointly by CDTX and BNSF (owner UP doesn't really care either way and won't be contributing).

Double tracking Capitol Corridor route south of Oakland to allow more trains to run to San Jose.

Possible new route from LAX to Palm Springs.

It's very clear that CDTX is more than willing to fork over the necessary cash to improve rail service, but is a train Route 7 worth the money? It's unlikely they'd be willing to spend the money to reopen the NWP for two daily trains, assuming the bus schedule is retained, but let's look at this a little more in depth:

Bus Pro's:

The buses are currently scheduled to make the journey in about six and a half hours. The SP/NWP Redwood took eleven. With suitable upgrades to the line, it may be possible to cut that down to eight or nine, but anything less than that is stretching it.

The Buses have been working fine for years, so who knows how willing they'd be to change that.

Train is on the wrong side of San Pablo/San Francisco Bay.

Train Pro's:

More comfortable.

On board food service available (buses currently have a meal stop in Ukiah).

Allows passengers to embark and disembark anywhere along the route, whereas the current setup requires passengers to either start or end in Martinez, as they must have a rail trip to ride the bus.

Greyhound already serves the bus route, so no one is going to be losing any service at stops between Willits and Scotia, where 101 moves away from the rails.

IF the line were to be reopened, there are still two pressing issues here; equipment and crossing the bay:


Pacific Surfliner train using Amtrak single level equipment. Photo: Scott Allen Sparks

Equipment

Both CDTX and Amtrak are short on equipment. CDTX is currently using two Amtrak single level trainsets on the Sufliners due to lack of bilevels. The San Joaquins will soon be taking delivery of refurbished former commuter cars from New Jersey Transit to allow a trainset to be broken up to free up more equipment elsewhere. Any new routes or frequencies will likely have to use single level Amtrak equipment until the new California Cars arrive, but that's quite a few years off. On the other hand single level cars can use smart's high level platforms, whereas bilevels cannot. Getting an engine that can run on the line without causing the Scotia Bluffs to implode would also be a challenge.

Water Crossing

One of the reasons it's so much easier to use buses now is that there's no way for a train to get to Oakland without taking a long detour through Schellville, Lombard, and Suisun/Fairfield. Hardly attractive to the traveling public, especially if you don't want a painfully slow schedule.

There are, however, two possible solutions to this problem:

-Have the train originate in Sacramento, while at the same time originating a bus from Oakland hitting up Emeryville, Richmond, and San Rafael before meeting the train in NOvato or Petaluma.

or

-Have the train originate/terminate in San Rafael. Buses will then take passengers across the bay. This would, in effect, isolate the train from the rest of the Amtrak system though. I should point out that Amtrak's Downeaster does not connect with any other Amtrak train. Not only that, they don't even have a bus to get you to another Amtrak Station!

Now, I know this will probably never happen, but it's definitely possible, with enough money of course. Some might think this can work, while others might think this is the worst idea in the world. I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts on this.

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Comment by mel perry on October 5, 2012 at 4:51pm

time to turn off the computer, and go outside and get some fresh air

Comment by Tim McNeil on September 6, 2012 at 5:41pm

sounds good, but sounds like current economics would disagree.

Comment by Devin on September 5, 2012 at 8:30am

We can't even keep an airline up here...

I would take a train from McKinleyville to Eureka, but I grew up riding commuter rails. No one here has.

There just isnt enough people or demand to attract anything. Willits by-pass is going in, and the Richardson grove project as well. Those two projects will probably be the nails in the coffin for the rials in these parts. Not happy.

Comment by Jordan on September 4, 2012 at 12:10pm

Correction from my earlier post: 711 and 718 are the trains they want to extend to LAX, not 712 and 717.

Comment by Jordan on September 3, 2012 at 9:13pm

I think it was via Schellville/Suisun. They didn't really elaborate much. All that was said was "Proposed service to Santa Rosa/Sonoma County". I haven't heard anything of it in a few years. They seem to be focusing on the routes they already have. The only new service that looks like it may happen anytime soon are the Coast Daylight and Capitol extension to Reno/Sparks, and San Jacko over Tehachapi.

I used to want a speeder, but after working in T&E for a few years, the last thing I want to do in my free time is drive something on the rails.

Comment by Chad Gustafson on September 3, 2012 at 8:44pm

Zach,

I would never pick on speeders! I love speeders! I was saving up for a speeder most of my childhood! A lot of my best friends have speeders!

Jordan,

Smart said that they will add on cars as needed as ridership grows. As far as I know, there wasn't enough room in the budget to add on more than three cars for a train.

I didn't know that about CDTX wanting to get up to Santa Rosa, I had thought about it quite often years before...would it be bus from Larkspur across the bridge into the city? Or would they continue out to Fairfield/Susian City?

Part of the Novato lawsuit did involve SMART, and I believe they had a pretty heavy input on the train. As cost effective as leasing CDTX cars and locomotives was, SMART promised one thing, and couldn't give another.

Comment by Zachary M. Toler on September 3, 2012 at 5:10pm

Chad-Don't be picking on my Speeders, hoss! Speeders are better than railbanking...

Jordan-Good idea for a topic! Never crossed my mind, so thanks for throwing it out there!

 

Zachary M. Toler

Comment by Jordan on September 3, 2012 at 4:53pm

Almost forgot, the whole GEVO's and stacktrains comment was not about how interesting they are, but rather the whole economics of a container port at Humboldt. CAHSR is going to be up and running LONG before the economy recovers to the point where we need more container ports. If the were GEVO's and stackers on the NWP, I would seriously railfan it all day long. GEVO's have by far the best cabs of any loco's out there too :)

Comment by Jordan on September 3, 2012 at 4:43pm

BART and Caltrain actually do a good job at moving people because their trains have a high enough capacity to do the job. Even then, many trains are standing room only. If smart has the ridership they say they will, I see train size being a big problem. I do not have a problem with commuter rail in the north bay, but we need trains that are an appropriate size. Three car trains are fine for lower density line, but not for 70 mile commuter lines, unless they are those monster DMU's Tri-Rail uses. I hear the main reason smart chose the little DMU's is concerns about "visual impact". Apparently NOvato did not want to look at bi-levels all day long.

One thing I forgot to add in my original post is that until smart was passed, CDTX was actually planning a rail service up to Santa Rosa. It may be dead now, or just on the back burner, but I haven't heard anything about it for quite some time. The entire line up to Eureka still remains a designated Amtrak route, having been made one since A-day in 1971, even the parts of the line not served by the Budd car.

Comment by Chad Gustafson on September 3, 2012 at 4:03pm
Jordan,
I'm not saying your idea is a bad one, in fact, I would be in full support for Amtrak to take over passengers on the NWP! But with your proposal, as detailed as it might be, lacks who would ride it.
As far as I'm concerned, double stacks pulled by Gevos is waay better than what is rolling on that part of the line now, which, as you might know, is nothing but occasional speeders, and hi-railers.
And as far as the three car trains,
People said the same th ing about BART and Caltrain while they were building them. Same with some of the most successful Muni lines.

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