SMART Train Is Really Happening … For Real

Passengers depart at the Rohnert Park station during a preview ride for the SMART Train, June 29, 2017.

Passengers depart at the Rohnert Park station during a preview ride for the SMART Train, June 29, 2017. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

Mark your calendars, North Bay commuters.

The long-awaited Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, or SMART train, will finally launch full passenger service on Friday, Aug. 25, after receiving approval from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the agency announced on Thursday.

The 43-mile system will stretch from the Sonoma County Airport to downtown San Rafael. An extension to Larkspur is expected to be completed by 2019.

It’s been a long road for North Bay commuters to get to this point. Voters approved a sales tax to pay for the train in 2008, but the financial crisis delayed the project. A design flaw and the need for more testing pushed a scheduled 2016 launch date into this year.

“People have been working seven days a week for years for this day,” said Debora Fudge, the mayor of Windsor and chair of the SMART Board of Directors.

The final holdup was an FRA review of the SMART train’s positive train control safety system, which is designed to automatically stop trains and avoid collisions. An FRA spokeswoman said while SMART is not yet PTC-certified, it has “revenue service demonstration (RSD) approval, which means it can test and run trains with PTC and report to FRA all anomalies, at real time, so that we can determine whether they can continue with their PTC system in service.”

PTC uses GPS technology to track where trains are and how fast they’re going. If something goes wrong, PTC alerts the train operator and can automatically slow a train if the operator doesn’t respond.

“It doesn’t completely automate the operation of the train,” said James Moore, director of the transportation engineering program at the University of Southern California. “The goal is to automate the decisions that have to be made to avoid a collision.

All passenger and freight trains in the U.S. are required to have PTC installed by the end of 2018. Congress passed a law requiring its implementation after a head-on collision between a commuter train and a freight train in Chatsworth, California, killed 25 people and injured more than 100 in 2008. Moore said PTC could have prevented that crash and other recent deadly train collisions.

SMART could have started service without PTC and installed it before the deadline of Dec. 31, 2018, but SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian said they wanted to have the latest safety system installed from the beginning, making SMART one of the first rail systems in the country to have PTC fully operational from its inception.

“Positive train control will prevent all speed-related and speed-related human error accidents, which are a common cause of train accidents,” Mansourian said. “It will save a lot of lives.”

The hope is that SMART will also save North Bay commuters a lot of time, freeing them from the constant congestion on Highway 101.

“This is really going to increase the quality of life for people who live up here,” Fudge said. She pointed to the certainty that the SMART train schedule will provide, as well as the community that she’s seen grow on preview rides.

“People are visiting with each other on the train,” Fudge said. “They’re having coffee or a beer or a snack, and they’re really communicating with each other.”

Mansourian said SMART expects to have around 3,000 riders a day at the beginning.

“Now that they have an option, people are going to start asking themselves, ‘Do I want to take this and cut my commute in half, or do I want to be stuck on 101?’ ” he said.

The SMART train will be free on opening day, and fares will be half price through Labor Day.

SMART Train Is Really Happening … For Real 18 August,2017Ryan Levi

  • Babanui

    It’s good to know that the PTC will not automate the Sonoma commute train (SMART), I guess that cars and trains will never be automated, thank goodness for that !
    There are many problems with SMART that have nothing at all to do with the PTC systems. One big problem is the signal systems that operate crossing gates, signal lights and enunciators when the train-sets cross public streets.

    Also, the quality of life will go way down for anyone living within 5 miles of the tracks, it’s the train horns, the vibration of the trains, the electronic bells at crossings, the rumbling droan of the diesel engines, the loss of privacy for those who live near the tracks, air pollution from the diesel engines, the sound of metal wheels running on metal tracks, poorly designed wheels that don’t sit right on the tracks, the danger to the public from having commuter trains running where they have never run before in all of history (only freight and passenger trains were ever run along this line about 60 years ago).
    The Sonoma commute trains have not even started running yet, and were supposed to be running 4 years ago. I think it is way too early to start estimating ridership, acceptance, popularity, travel times, taxpayer subsidies, adherence to schedules, safety or if this even will be utilized by the handful of Sonoma commuters traveling down from the north bay to work in Marin.
    Station Casinos Inc. was the biggest donor to the SMART campaign back around 2007 before they went bankrupt, there was a recall effort that SMART had killed, and future taxpayer funding/subsidizing is questionable.
    If this Sonoma Snail ever starts running, it won’t be running as advertised, even if it is on schedule, supposedly it will take 67 minutes to run the entire length of 45 miles from near the Santa Rosa airport to downtown San Rafael. And, that reported/alleged time does not include driving to the train platform, finding parking walking from parking to the train, waiting for the train, hailing a taxi or waiting for a bus to take the passengers to where they work and back. That is only if everything runs perfectly and there are no bugs, homeless people on the tracks, floods, earthquakes, equipment malfunctions, operator errors, storms or strikes by employees who are paid wages so low that they don’t even qualify to rent a one room studio apartment in Sonoma county !
    Most people who live in the north bay will simply opt out of riding the SMART train, for the main reasons that it would be too inconveint, too costly and too wasteful of valuable time.

    • murphstahoe

      These quality of life issues regarding proximity to the train – the right of way has been there over a century, and has been specifically preserved since service stopped late last century. Life is about taking chances, it might be reasonable to take a bet that train service would never return but when that gamble doesn’t pay off, you can’t blame anyone but yourself.

    • crazyvag

      Quality of life within 5 miles of the train? Welcome to all of Bay Area! 🙂 You’ve just described how horrible the life is on the peninsula and in east bay.

      On a serious note, a balanced transportation provides a mix of buses, trains and highways for the residents. Not all options make sense for everyone, but that’s some people now have a new option. Train might not be faster, but some people can work on the train to make up the extra time with less stress than driving.

      Just like Hwy 101 didn’t start with 4 lanes in each direction, SMART isn’t going to be like Electrified Caltrain from day 1 either. It takes a significant amount of money to build stations, but initial set of cars and rehabilitate the track. Future improvements can be done incrementally: better ferry connection, a few more trains, a few more passing tracks, and extension here and there.

      There was a special train to the speedway from Sacramento a few years back. Such extra service is closer to reality too from both Larkspur and Santa Rosa.

      Don’t look at the short term, but take the long view at the investment your county has made.

  • Fran Nunez

    Ryan Levi, KQED

    Thanks so much for contacting FRA and reporting these facts about the PTC approval. (This was not reported by SMART or mentioned in any of the other media articles:

    “An FRA spokeswoman said while SMART is not yet PTC-certified, it has “revenue service demonstration (RSD) approval, which means it can test and run trains with PTC and report to FRA all anomalies, at real time, so that we can determine whether they can continue with their PTC system in service.””

  • Celeste Baudin

    I was hoping that the train would shave more than a few minutes off the time it takes the 101 bus to negotiate a trip, it might have been worth the extra cash but now GGT has reduced their fares there’s absolutely no point getting the train.

    • No point at all, unless you happen to car about the oopsy tiny little impact that car-priority transportation has on this planet of ours.

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    It’s quite pathetic how angry people get over alternatives to a car-centric society. This isn’t just about Smart; these same naysayers get angry over everything that gives people any alternative to driving a car; such as more walkable communities, protected bike lanes, more effective bus transit and any improvements to our antiquated rail infrastructure. The same naysayers get angry over any alternatives to driving.

    This is an ideological debate on how we want to shape our state’s future transportation infrastructure. This is such an emotional debate because for both sides believe it’s about freedom. The Cars-First side believes that everyone should have the freedom to drive and park anywhere they want to go; which is impossibly unsustainable. The Futurist side wants everyone to have the freedom to choose how they want to get to where their going by providing viable alternatives to driving everywhere.

    Even after SMART is up and running, these same ideological opponents to SMART are still going to be angrily oppose everything that provides people a viable alternative to driving. In SF we’ve seen lawsuits filed against building bike racks for example filed by cars-first interest groups.

    People who believe we should actually do something about climate change and improving the transportation infrastructure of our communities need to speak up and fight these cars-first interests because they are as ignorant and stubborn as Trump supporters, they are causing at least as much harm to our future as Trump supporters, and they aren’t going to go away.


Ryan Levi

Ryan Levi is a reporter and producer at KQED News and the host of the weekly Q’ed Up podcast. Ryan started at KQED as an intern where he reported on-air and online for The California Report, The California Report Magazine and KQED’s daily newscasts. Prior to joining KQED in 2016, Ryan was a general assignment reporter and producer at KBIA-FM, the NPR member station in Columbia, Missouri. Ryan reported on Columbia’s renewed fight against homelessness as well as coordinating the station’s coverage of the annual True/False Film Fest, one of the top documentary film festivals in the country. Ryan has also written about film, food, books, religion, theater and other topics for various publications. You can find Ryan on Twitter @ryan_levi.

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