'...It Takes (Losing) a Train to Cry'

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Rockridge businessman and early Rockridge Community Planning Council (RCPC) chair Ray Perman submitted this nostalgic look back at streetcars and commuter rail lines once prevalent in the Bay Area well in advance of Oakland Planning Director Rachel Flynn"s lament for the long-gone streetcar (article, page 1) in her remarks at the June Town Hall meeting. Perman describes his research into local rail transit and a trip to the Western Railway Museum in Suisun City where many of the old trains are preserved. - Editor

As a Berkeley student in the pre-Transbay BART 1970s, I often rode mass transit between my parents" home in Palo Alto and the Cal campus. The trip was generally timely, but during one evening rush-hour, I found things decidedly different; the platforms of San Francisco"s Transbay Terminal were jammed with what seemed like 10,000 waiting passengers, with only about three AC Transit buses in sight.

Suddenly an older looking AC Transit supervisor brushed through the crowd grumbling loudly to no one in particular, "We'd used to have trains out and back in 40 minutes no matter what!" Apparently a serious auto accident had closed the bridge, and a closed bridge meant no transit service.

Following up on this experience, I went to the UC Main Library and checked the old Key System Bridge Service schedules. I found that not only did the trains make it to most points in central Oakland in about 20 minutes, they made it to most other locations in the outer Oakland, Piedmont, and Berkeley areas within 30 to 40 minutes - every day - no matter what the traffic. The Key Route E Line traveled up Claremont Avenue and terminated at the Claremont Hotel; travel time between San Francisco and College Avenue was only 32 minutes.

Equally astounding was the level of service provided by Key Route Local Service streetcars. They collected passengers on such streets as Broadway, College Avenue, Telegraph Avenue, Alcatraz Avenue, Piedmont Avenue, Highland Avenue and others, and delivered them to the Bridge Service train routes and other East Bay locations with typical service frequencies of every 15 minutes. I recall an aging merchant telling me that you could set your watches by them and that most everyone knew the quarter-hour schedules for their stops by heart - in both directions. More remarkably, during rush-hour, the frequency on Telegraph Avenue would be doubled to a streetcar every 7-1/2 minutes and they would hold perfect spacing. Thus, citizens could time their walks to their local stop to arrive just a minute or two before the next streetcar. By comparison, the number of times I have had to wait over 30 minutes for AC Transit 50-Line buses should be considered shameful.

Rockridge was also blessed by being served by the Sacramento Northern Railroad, the largest electrified inter-urban train system in the U.S.

Trains operated from the Transbay Terminal to Oakland and up Shafter Avenue to a station at College Avenue and Chabot Road, then on past Lake Temescal and through Montclair to Lafayette, Walnut Creek, Concord, Stockton, Sacramento, Marysville/Yuba City, all the way to Chico. Astoundingly, the track on the long 50-mile stretch between the hills just north of the Carquinez Strait and Sacramento"s Tower Bridge was absolutely as straight as an arrow.

Travel time from the Montclair Station to San Francisco was just over 30 minutes, and to Sacramento about two hours and 40 minutes.

The nicest features of the train service were the lounge cars with large, rear-facing balconies and continuous lemonade service.

As I now ride BART's transbay service, enduring the monotony of flickering lights and the dangerously high interior noise levels, I often wonder how exquisite it must have been to ride a train across the Bay Bridge on a glorious sunny morning, enjoying one of the best views in the world.

(Is a return to streetcar service in Oakland a possibility? A Stanford student thinks so, and has submitted his plan to the City. See it at http://oaklandnorth.net/2010/07/15/a-streetcar-for-oakland-a-student-sha...)

by Ray Perman