San Francisco Water and Rail

I can never decide which is sadder: the Obama Administration’s token 12-15 billion dollars for national railways, or, the greenblogger, transportblogger, and mainstream media’s belief we’re pursuing a new rail policy. The United States has for years been piled high with unfunded rail projects, just waiting for a green light. But the 12-15 billion allocated so far will, at best, provide nothing more than seed money for mega projects like high-speed rail while neglecting the myriad smaller projects across the country. In the same way the Obama Administration has no energy policy, they have no transport policy.

Turning the clock back a few years, however, it’s worth recalling that John Stilgoe’s Train Time was not only well received among his graduate students at Harvard, but was also popular among hedge funds and private equity investors looking to invest in rail. There were reports that investors were scurrying to locate historic rail maps across America, and also Rights of Way deeds, to better quantify emerging opportunities. To this point, I found the first of some historic railway maps for the Bay Area this week, at Calisphere. Here is a section of the 1900 Mill Valley and Mt Tamalpais Railway Co Map and Schedule:

I believe the public would be surprised to learn that many railroad companies, and their descendant companies, have retained Rights of Way along the myriad disused rail beds that criss-cross the nation. (That bike path you’ve ridden over the past ten years may, in fact, not be owned by your town. It might be leased for 1.00 dollar a year from a railroad company). While I can’t know the current legal status of all the current and former railbeds of the Bay Area, it’s worth noting that the map above probably still lines up well with existing (and likely retained) Rights of Way. For a wider view, here is a 1900 Southern Railway Map of California–again with just the Bay Area detail:

I’ve identified the Bay Area as one of the regions in North America best positioned for a slow-to-no growth world, in which energy inputs are never cheap again, and the problem of transportation–actually, conveyance in general–becomes a central concern to economies. The Bay Area’s waterways are a natural gift and it’s not for nothing San Francisco was the dominant West Coast city 100 years ago, in 1910. It’s miles of waterfront within the bay itself is a powerful resource, especially when combined with the Carquinez Straight’s access to agricultural land. As you can see from the maps also, there is alot of historic rail in the region–a great deal of which is also near the water.

While it may take a while, eventually the country will bet once again on the railroads (did Warren Buffet read Stilgoe’s Train Time?). The old line that comes down through Petaluma to San Rafael (seen on the first map) is a good example of the current revival in two ways. First, the formation of the new Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) shows strong community support for the project, and they’ve been successful in winning measures through balloting. Second, the difficulty that SMART has now run into is largely financial, and is pretty much courtesy of the recession. These twin influences, public interest in rail transport as oil prices resume their advance, and financial pressures, will likely define rail buildout in the years ahead. But regions rich in an existing rail footprint–especially near water–will have fewer hurdles to surmount.

-Gregor

Photos: Details of Railway Maps, found in the Maps–>Railroads section of Calisphere.

  • http://twitter.com/howardlindzon howardlindzon

    awesome post. every time I ride the train to LA I am blown away how low my expectations are and how great this could be. we suck.

  • AKA_AK

    Light rail along the old Northwest Pacific rail lines in the Marin-Sonoma corridor has been proposed any number of times. When I was a kid it was shot down by an ambitious county supervisor named Barbara Boxer with the comment: “If you want streetcars, move to San Francisco.”

  • http://www.competitivefutures.com/ ericgarland

    Traveling in Northeast Vermont, I was struck by how the old economy was driven by limited conveyance – river, rail, or very slow, snowy, unreliable roads. As a result, things were placed very close together within a town, and towns were placed near to each other to maximize space and ease of distribution for the few resources present. Vermont, need be, can return somewhat easily to such a system – the bones are literally still in place.

    California? Texas? Florida? The shift back to a low-energy or expensive-energy system will be much more traumatic.

  • cougar_w

    I live in San Jose (south Bay). The talk right now is high-speed rail. We have commuter CalTrain along the peninsula — a lumbering, accident- and breakdown-prone dinosaur powered by diesel — that awaits electrification dependent on the arrival of HS rail here.

    Not going to happen. The costs of HS rail are turning out to be astronomical, and Calif is running record deficits already. The Federal gov is doling out seed money that will evaporate into consultant pockets and pork barrel projects along the proposed route. It's already over, stick a fork in it.

    We could have done it 20 years ago. Not today. The window of opportunity is closed, likely forever. CalTrain is suffering budget cuts and rider reductions due to unemployment. I don't ride anymore if I can help it, and ride a bicycle 30 miles instead. I expect CalTrain to file for BK and end service by 2012, but that's just my opinion.

    cougar

  • http://blog.competitivefutures.com/ ericgarland

    Traveling in Northeast Vermont, I was struck by how the old economy was driven by limited conveyance – river, rail, or very slow, snowy, unreliable roads. As a result, things were placed very close together within a town, and towns were placed near to each other to maximize space and ease of distribution for the few resources present. Vermont, need be, can return somewhat easily to such a system – the bones are literally still in place.

    California? Texas? Florida? The shift back to a low-energy or expensive-energy system will be much more traumatic.

  • cougar_w

    I live in San Jose (south Bay). The talk right now is high-speed rail. We have commuter CalTrain along the peninsula — a lumbering, accident- and breakdown-prone dinosaur powered by diesel — that awaits electrification dependent on the arrival of HS rail here.

    Not going to happen. The costs of HS rail are turning out to be astronomical, and Calif is running record deficits already. The Federal gov is doling out seed money that will evaporate into consultant pockets and pork barrel projects along the proposed route. It's already over, stick a fork in it.

    We could have done it 20 years ago. Not today. The window of opportunity is closed, likely forever. CalTrain is suffering budget cuts and rider reductions due to unemployment. I don't ride anymore if I can help it, and ride a bicycle 30 miles instead. I expect CalTrain to file for BK and end service by 2012, but that's just my opinion.

    cougar

  • MrNamuro

    This just proves once again that the human mind is very creative and if you actually want to do something, you can do it. You just need to be motivated and be a professional about your objective.
    _____________________________________________________
    San Francisco lawyers

  • SamanthaCherley

    I agree with MrNamuro, if you want to do something you don't need anything else but will,money and creativity.The investors you will need they will show up pretty fast because there will be profit and everybody wants profit.

    ___________________________________________________________
    San Francisco plumbers

  • http://www.plumbingsanrafael.net San Rafael Plumbing

    Wow now that is a huge amount of money being invested but I am sure that the people will surely benefit from it. Great post keep up the good work.