I recently made a side trip from San Francisco to Marin and Sonoma counties to catch a ride on a new Nippon Sharyo DMU SMART train connecting the San Rafael Transit Center with Santa Rosa. The SMART trains run on a shared freight and passenger corridor so the passenger vehicles have to meet the most stringent FRA crashworthiness standards. If this operation is a success, it could lead to more short line commuter passenger trains or even some longer routes operated by Amtrak. Locally, the Nippon Sharyo rail cars might make a Seattle to Pasco via Stampede Pass operation more feasible. The SMART trainsets consist of 2 coupled DMUs in a push-pull arrangement. Each car has 79 seats and one car has a restroom while the other car offers a staffed snack bar. The cars were quite comfortable, acceleration was smooth and there didn’t seem to be any problems with the mechanical features of the cars. There are plenty of tables available in each car for working commuters, although at one point the onboard WiFi had to be reset.
Santa Rosa to San Rafael is just the first phase of the SMART project. Construction has recently begun on a 2.2 mile southern extension to the Larkspur Ferry Dock which will allow direct train-to-boat connections to the Ferry Terminal Building on the San Francisco waterfront. Having that connection should boost ridership tremendously. Until the Larkspur extension is completed any trip to SF will require a bus transfer at the San Rafael Transit Center. For anyone interested in making a day trip to see SMART from SF, Golden Gate Transit connects the Transbay Terminal to San Rafael via Van Ness, Lombard and the Golden Gate Bridge (Route 101 is fastest, Routes 30 and 70 are more local and slower). If you are already familiar with GGT’s old, dilapidated and uncomfortable buses and would prefer another option there currently is a local bus connection between the Larkspur Ferry dock and the San Rafael TC (route 228) that is well-timed for a northbound trip to San Rafael but not so good for a southbound trip.
There is one detail about SMART that is important to note for anyone planning to connect to the train from the Sonoma County Airport. The current SMART timetable and map lists “Sonoma County Airport” as the northern terminal for the train but that SMART station is over 1 mile from the Sonoma County Airport terminal. You will need to use a taxi or rideshare to make the connection if you have heavy or bulky luggage because parts of the walking path lack sidewalks and there are no wayfinding signs from the airport to the station. If you arrive with light luggage and feel like stretching your legs after the flight, just exit the terminal, turn right at the main road and walk until you see the SMART O & M facility. It’s about a 20-25 minute walk through a transitioning farmlands to office parks landscape. On my trip I saw a wild turkey strutting across a freshly paved parking lot.
A Bus Connection to Point Lobos!
If you’re visiting the south side of the Bay Area, I also discovered a transit connection between Monterey and Pt. Lobos State Reserve. The Point Lobos State Marine Reserve is one of my favorite places to relax and enjoy nature when I’m in the Bay Area and there is a weekend-only bus from Monterey to Pt. Lobos. Monterey-Salinas Transit Route 22 would allow about 5 hours of relaxation in the park. During the summer from Memorial Day to Labor Day the Route 22 schedule expands to offer 3 daily connections to Pt. Lobos. Unfortunately there isn’t an easy connection between Monterey and San Francisco that would allow for day trips via public transit. There is a bus from San Jose/Diridon Station but that bus leaves too late to connect to the Pt. Lobos bus.