Upfront: Train I Ride

Mr. Godot told me to tell you he won’t come this evening but surely tomorrow.—Samuel Beckett, ‘Waiting for Godot’

In July of 2008 I was standing on a train platform in Tokyo when a Japanese acquaintance asked me, “What are train stations like in America?”

I thought long and hard before answering. “They’re like this, but we call them airports.”

The humor was lost on my companion. However, the conversation did reveal a striking difference between America and the rest of the world. American passenger trains, for the most part, have gone the way of the dinosaur. I’m not qualified to say if that’s a good or bad thing. It’s just that today, most Americans simply don’t know what to make of passenger trains that aren’t meant for sightseeing tours.

But in the fall of 2008, Sonoma County voters bucked the trend and approved SMART, the then-proposed passenger rail service that would connect Cloverdale to the Larkspur Ferry Terminal in Marin County. Rail commuters would bypass the Novato-Petaluma traffic woes on Highway 101, zooming past at a comfortable 80 miles per hour. It would be glorious.

Nine Years Later

“I’m not paying $23 to take a train!”

The appalled man was dressed to the nines in turn-of-the-century attire, one of a dozen historical re-enactors standing on the downtown Santa Rosa SMART station platform. His mind simulating life in 1900, it’s no wonder that he thought $23 was too much for a roundtrip train ride. Except today, it’s free.

Besides this group of men and women seemingly unstuck in time, the train platform was half-full when I arrived just after 8am on July 22, one of SMART’s free-preview days. There were couples, families and a few curious solo travelers. Friendly SMART ambassadors were answering questions and handing out Clipper cards. The question of the day, “When does real service start?” was met with shrugs and stories of pending (delayed) government approval.

One of the SMART ambassadors reported that the train would be standing-room only. That was fine with me. I was out to discover what people thought about Sonoma and Marin counties’ long-awaited transportation revolution.  

The moment arrived. More than half of the crowd took pictures of the approaching train. “New train smell” escaped as the doors opened. I stood near the closed doors and braced myself. Thankfully, the train started without a jolt. We were underway, heading south to San Rafael.

I talked to Dave Bettin, the conductor in my car. Mr. Bettin has worked for SMART since 2011, and uses his law enforcement expertise to help train other SMART conductors on how to deal with everything from disorderly passengers to medical emergencies. In the same car, I met Jennifer and her young daughter, Grace. The two were out for a pancake breakfast in Petaluma before taking the return train home. Jennifer told me that she wasn’t going to use SMART to commute, just on special occasions.

“So what do you think?” I asked Grace. It was her first time riding a train. After some light prompting from her mother, Grace answered. “It’s fun.”

I changed cars and checked out the snack bar. Even at 9am, beer and wine were on tap along with a light selection of snacks.

After an hour of standing, my legs were beginning to ache as the train approached the San Rafael station. I was looking forward to sitting down at a table, but no one exited. Yep, that Saturday-morning crowd of 200 people stole my idea: Take SMART back and forth without getting off. In San Rafael, the number of passengers nearly doubled, and I was squished against a door.

My compatriots included a married couple from San Rafael. “You could throw popcorn at people’s balconies they’re so close,” the husband said, taking a picture of apartments that seemed just beyond arm’s reach.

“This thing is destined to fail,” an older man reported. His very specific doomsday prediction: An earthquake will wreck the track in Petaluma and the powers that be will shut SMART down for good.

On the trip back I had a great view out the window. In some places, it’s breathtaking. There isn’t a single building, road, car or any sign of civilization. It’s like the train is traveling through the past. I imagined SMART television commercials based around the scenery. Picture this: A tired businessman gets on the train in San Rafael. He buys a glass of wine at the snack bar before settling in to look out the window, where the sun is setting over golden pastures. Get on that advertising campaign, SMART.

Past Rohnert Park, homes and businesses filled up the view, along with large cannabis farms on the west side of Roseland. “You’d never see that in St. Louis,” one of the conductors said, chuckling as he pointed out the window.

My two-hour journey ended where it began. I, along with 50 or so other passengers, got off at the downtown Santa Rosa station at Railroad Square.

Walking back to my car, I planned part two of my research: How would the free ride compare to taking SMART on the first day of paid service, scheduled at the time for Aug. 2?

One Month Later

It’s Aug. 23 and we’re still waiting. The SMART opening turned out to be an even rarer event than the solar eclipse this week.

But if SMART is to be believed, the trains are set to roll for real on Aug. 25, helping commuters get from point A to point B in an environmentally friendly style, complete with coffee and snacks and killer views of cannabis fields. We will see.

When I lived in Japan and was asked about commuter train stations in America, I was an intern at the Central Japan Railway Company. JR Central, among other things, is the majority shareholder of Nippon Sharyo, the company that built SMART’s trains. On a tour of the Nippon Sharyo factory floor just outside Nagoya, I saw firsthand the care that goes into building some of the safest and most technologically advanced trains in the world.

At the time I thought how great it would be if these trains existed in America. And now that the feds have signed off on SMART’s positive train control system which shuts train service down to prevent emergencies like derailments, here they are, right in our backyard and ready to roll. I’m glad the day is coming soon.  

But until then, if anyone should ask me about SMART’s first day of service, I will continue to cite Beckett: “Surely tomorrow.”