Issue date: January 19, 2000
By Arthur L. Lloyd
San Francisco voters in November showed their wish for Caltrain to reach downtown San Francisco. By a margin of almost 70 percent the electorate indicated they wanted the 135-year old reliable commuter rail service to reach the TransBay Terminal at First and Mission Streets or to some point closer than the present end of the line at 4th and King Streets, eight blocks from Market Street, The only glitch is that the advisory vote had no funding attached and it will be San Francisco's job to secure the over half-billion dollar tab to bring the line closer to downtown.
When Southern Pacific completed its office building at Market and the Embarcadero in 1917 they had showed their plan to bring the trains to that location by shaping the building in a "U" so that trains would come directly to the first floor. A "temporary" station was constructed at Third and Townsend Streets in 1914 so as to adequately serve the Pan Pacific International Exposition. This interim station lasted until 1975 when the terminal was moved from Third to Fourth and Townsend, the present site for Caltrain's 68 daily trains which serve San Jose, Gilroy and the intermediate cities in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. World War I ended Southern Pacific's plans, which were never revived.
In 1975 Southern Pacific attempted to discontinue what was down to 54 daily commuter trains. However, the state of California, through Caltrans, took over the operation in 1980. Caltrans turned around the decline in daily ridership, down to 14,000 daily passengers, by offering fare incentives and rationalizing a schedule to a "memory'' pattern, Instead of trains leaving San Francisco at 8:35 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1:50 p,m. the schedule was adjusted for departures on the hour every two hours. Southern Pacific made no attempts to market the service and the schedule was a pattern set up for handling mail, express and set for U.S. Postal service requirements.
Caltrans eyed the then-existing line of the San Francisco Belt Railroad which served the piers along the Embarcadero. With business at the Port of San Francisco dwindling due to the upswing in use of container cargo ships, these tracks had fallen into disuse. Caltrans proposed extending three or four rush-hour trains in each direction to the Ferry Building with a terminal under the then-existing Embarcadero Freeway. Schedules were drawn up, Southern Pacific and the Port Railroad agreed and plans were underway to do this in the mid-1980s.
But residents of nearby Telegraph Hill objected to the "train noise" even though they lived some distance from the proposed operation. The idea died a quiet death as San Francisco supervisors and the mayor withdrew their support.
The Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board bought the line in 1992 and assumed operation, planning to extend the line to the Trans Bay Terminal at First and Mission. Mayor Willie Brown, however, first opposed the project, but has changed his mind. Unfortunately, the funds budgeted for the extension have now been spent on other Caltrain improvements.
Early in 1999, voters in San Francisco, Berkeley, Emeryville and Oakland endorsed a plan for rail on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. This has fired up a plan to upgrade the Trans Bay Terminal (opened Jan. 15, 1934 for three rail lines across the Bay Bridge) which the City of San Francisco was proposing to relocate.
This Trans Bay Terminal Committee has been meeting monthly on plans to upgrade the location and include Caltrain either in an underground terminal or above-ground, where the former Key System, Southern Pacific (Interurban Electric) and Sacramento Northern trains ran. Southern Pacific and Sacramento Northern ended early on in 1941 but Key System trains ran until April 20, 1958. Buses operated by SamTrans, AC Transit, Golden Gate Bridge Authority, Greyhound and Gray Line would continue to serve the location along with the proposed rail line to East Bay locations, Caltrain and High Speed Rail.
Ridership on Caltrain, now at 28,000 daily weekday riders (double since 1975) would rise significantly. The present stop at 4th and King would be continued, serving the new Pac Bell Giants' ball park, growing business in the South of Market area, the new UCSF campus and other Mission Bay projects. Electrification, now on the drawing board, is a necessary requirement for going downtown due to the need for tunneling under Rincon Hill and city streets.
It is all part of the need to improve public transportation in the San Francisco Bay Area before we fall victim to 24-hour gridlock and are buried in the fumes caused by fossil-fuel burning vehicles.
Arthur Lloyd is a member of SamTrans Board and a resident of Portola Valley. He is a member of the Almanac's Panel of Contributors.