Sunday, January 19, 2014

CalTrain's 150th Celebration: Past and Future Public Transport

The San Francisco to San Jose rail line made its inaugural trip in January 16, 1864 after a rocky financing history, and six years later was absorbed by Southern Pacific, which was owned by the local railroad tycoons known as the Big Four: Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins. (Click here for an instructive timeline at the valuable Bay Rail Alliance website.)

CalTrain as we know it is a fairly recent invention, dating from the 1980s after Southern Pacific had tried to terminate the commuter train service, which had become an anachronism in the car-centered culture of the Peninsula. Ron Diridon (above left with celebration emcee Tom Nolan) explained that he was the son of a career Southern Pacific father. Diridon's father changed his name from the Italian Diridoni so he could obtain that Southern Pacific job in the first place because swarthy immigrants who were not Native Sons of the West were unwelcome for railway employment in the 1930s.

By the 1970s, Ron explained in a funny, frank and historically informed speech, Southern Pacific's San Jose to SF service was famously rude, late and trains would often drive by stations without stopping, leaving passengers stranded on the platform. SP wanted out of the business altogether, but the state of California said no, which was when Santa Clara Supervisor Diridon led politicians from Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco County in an effort to save the rail system. In 1980 the state agency Caltrans took over administration from Southern Pacific, and in 1992 the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board paid $219 million for the right-of-way.

The "baby bullet" trains that helped revive CalTrain as a viable service began in 2002, with $217 million talked out of Governor Gray Davis by State Senator Jackie Spier (above right with fellow South Bay Congresspersons Zoe Lofgren and Mike Honda). Currently, the rail line carries 54,000 passengers a day which is a huge jump from a couple of decades ago, but as someone who occasionally uses it to commute to Silicon Valley, I can testify that CalTrain is charming, antiquated and unreliable. When somebody jumps in front of a train or a locomotive breaks down, there is no Plan B for the system, and too often you can find yourself motionless in a field in San Bruno for two hours.

These days are coming to an end soon, so it may be time to indulge in nostalgia for a moment in history that is about to vanish. Over the next 5 years, the line will be electrified, which will finally allow for 21st century technology. It is being designed as the final, northern leg of the high speed California rail line from Southern California, and Ron Diridon is again spearheading that project, which is still in a world of controversy. Friends whose opinion I respect look upon it as a pigpile of public works pork, and watching the current Central Subway to Nowhere being built in downtown San Francisco does not inspire confidence that they are wrong.

Still, freeway car culture with its burning of valuable carbon molecules is insane and completely unsustainable. The more infrastructure and convenience that exists within public transportation, the better chance it will be successful. I was born in Santa Monica, a Native Son of the Golden West, and raised in Southern California when car culture apocalypse was at its dawn. After barely passing a high school driver's ed course with a psychotic professor who awarded me a "0" out of 100 possible points for "Attitude," I vowed to opt out of the automobile paradigm and never get a driver's license, a radical decision for a Southern California teenager. Recently, I made another vow to opt out of mobile phones, for similar reasons. Neither technological advance has helped create a particularly healthy sense of community, physically or mentally. (Photo above is of Dee Brown, a Peninsula Master Gardener who was a delightful celebration companion until I gave up a seat for an insistent, late-coming wheelchair user.)

The Peninsula's decision in the late 1950s/early 1960s not to be part of BART was shortsighted and has come to haunt the area in the form of daily parking lots on their freeways and thruways as Silicon Valley drives an overheated local economy. As State Senator Jerry Hill above put it during his speech, "Something is very wrong when the driving time is the same from my house in San Mateo to Sacramento as it is to Sunnyvale 20 miles south."

Besides the electrification of the Peninsula tracks, where Caltrain is promising a train every ten minutes by 2019, BART is finally building an extension from the Fremont station to downtown San Jose and Santa Clara, where it will connect with CalTrain, Amtrak, and the projected high speed rail system. This should make for a whole new generation of obsessive railway fans like Alameda resident David Foote above, who grew up in a small railroad town in Illinois before becoming a local boy genius who memorized every one of San Francisco's Muni lines in the 1950s. California has a lost knowledge of the use and enjoyment of public transportation which it needs to relearn after a few generations of widely accepted automobile obsession.


john_burke100 said...

Besides electrification, the Peninsula line needs "grade separation"--building over- or under-passes so autos and pedestrians never cross the tracks. (This is part of Japanese and European high-speed rail design.)
Personally I'd rather see an upgrade of the Coast Route (SF-San Jose-Salinas-San Luis Obispo-Santa Barbara-LA) than a high-speed route through the Central Valley, but that's probably a pipe dream.

Michael Strickland said...

Dear John: I think "grade separation" is part of this five-year electrification process but am not sure. It certainly needs to be.

As for an upgrade of slow rail on the Coast Route, I'm totally with you. If the recent CalTrain experience has shown us anything, it's an inducement to repurpose and improve on the infrastructure we still have left rather than wait for a Grand Solution.

AphotoAday said...

Fond memories of riding the Del Monte Express from San Francisco to Monterey and vice-versa a few times in the 1950's. By then passenger service had been discontinued to my home town of Pacific Grove, but each weekday a "sand train" could be heard over the roar of the ocean making its way to and from the Owens Illinois "sand plant" which was located where Spanish Bay Golf Course now is. Vast quantities of high quality quartz sand for use in the manufacture of glass was shipped from this area. The area of the "new" golf course remained a blighted and swampy area for decades. As kids we disobeyed rules--casting danger to the wind by hopping on the moving conveyor belts that brought sand to the plant from dunes within Del Monte Forest. Thanks for the memories.

Michael Strickland said...

Dear Donald: Great rail story.