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New Maps of the Interurban, Marin's Old Trains

What the devil did Marin's old train system actually look like? What might it look like today, had it survived? Two maps explore its history, both real and imagined.

In 1941, the last ferry and the last train ran on the NWP Interurban commuter line, and Marin was handed over to the battle of its life against the car-centric development unleashed by the Golden Gate Bridge. Marinites, unlike most of the country, won that battle, and we maintained the transit-oriented development passed down from the age of rail.

Most of us, though, don’t even know what it looked like, and the best thing we’ve got are grainy maps and schedules from the 1930s. That’s all well and good, but hides the structure and sinews of the system. The purpose of contemporary transit mapping is to combine not just where a system goes, but how and, to a lesser extent, when.

I’ve created two maps that do just that for the Interurban. The first is in an “old” style. Old printing techniques could only print two or three colors. Given that the Interurban shut down in 1941, I thought a map inspired by that era made sense.

The second map is the same thing, but in a “new” style. With contemporary printing techniques, we can do as many colors as we like. The advantage is that individual lines can be individually colored, snapping into focus what lines go where.

As you can see, it was quite a comprehensive system, at least for Central and Southern Marin. Northern Marin was served by intercity rail, more akin to Amtrak than BART, and was not part of the electric rail system highlighted here.

Let’s say for a minute the Interurban hadn’t stopped running in 1941. It was bleeding money, but its parent company, NWP, was a for-profit entity. What if the Interurban had somehow survived?

For the sake of this exercise, I’m taking a few liberties. First, that the Bay Area had valued its rail transportation system from the 1930s to the present, but had consolidated it all, as well as the Golden Gate Bridge, under the single umbrella of MTC. Second, that European best practices had been implemented at least in this corner of the country. Third, that the Interurban could now survive on a 50 percent subsidy. And fourth, that Marin and Sonoma have their current populations, though with less sprawl.

Though I had originally intended for this to be a bit more a light post rather than something more data-driven, a Twitter conversation with Dan Lyke motivated me to put some numbers behind the costs of an Interurban.

Costs per vehicle-kilometer (vkm) vary widely based on the system. Vancouver’s automated Skytrain system costs $2.18/vkm, BART costs around $3.50/vkm, and New York’s subway costs $5.81/vkm. Using quite a few assumptions about the service, I get an average annual operating cost between $43.2 million and $111.6 million. If we assume an average fare of $2.50 and a 50 percent farebox recovery rate, total ridership would need to be between 8.6 million per year, roughly the same number of transit trips on today’s GGT system, and 22.3 million. With the Geary and North Beach extensions (Muni’s 38-Geary alone carries over 13 million weekday passengers per year), it’s entirely feasible for the system to meet BART’s 80 percent farebox recovery.

Alas, reconstructing the system would be prohibitively expensive and politically impossible. Large portions of some major roads (Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, Fourth and Third Streets, Magnolia Avenue, Miller Avenue, and others) would need to be converted back to rail, wealthy homeowners would need to accept trains running behind (and in Ross's case, through) their back yards, Sausalito would need to take a new elevated railway along the waterfront, Geary and North Beach would need to be torn up for a new subway, and over $10 billion would need to be spent. While the San Francisco part of the project might be worth it, for 8 million riders per year, most of them already served by transit, the cost and pain of the Marin portion of the Interurban simply wouldn’t be worth it.

A version of this post appeared in two parts, one on the old map and one on the new, on The Greater Marin. You can follow David on Twitter @theGreaterMarin.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Rico October 28, 2012 at 04:56 PM
Over $10 billion would be spent just to resurrect the old interurban train lines in Marin. And, those old lines only ran down in the flatlands of central and southern Marin when there was probably only one fiftieth of the population in Marin. Thank you David for these old maps, most of us long time locals already know the limited areas that the trains served, and that trains would not work for transportation in Marin now. But, it is the newcomers who love trains that can benefit the most from this revealing article, I sure hope that some of new "trainhuggers" read it and get a better grip on the costs and realities of resurrecting old train lines now in today's Marin.
Rico October 29, 2012 at 12:31 AM
I also grew up in Marin and used to walk along the old train tracks in central and southern Marin. In those days, the tracks were still in place and it was impossible to ride a bike along their route. It was a wonderful thing when they ripped out the old unused tracks, creosote (stinky, toxic) old ties and the gravel and paved it to create multi- use paths that everyone can benefit from now. That is good transportation that has been done nationwide in the "rails to trails" program. The old tunnels in many places were abandoned, because tunnels are extremely expensive to rebuild and maintain now. Even existing rail corporations are abandoning old tunnels and lines because they simply cannot afford to rebuild them now (without special taxpayer subsidy). Back in the good old days, the private corporations simply took the free right of ways, sometimes killing property owners and taking their land "for the greater corporate good". Trains had a place and time in Marin back in the old days, but those days are long gone now-history. Some people like to reminisce about how they used to live in high density urban cities and trains abounded, and simply cannot understand why they are gone from the scene in Marin. The thing is, in Marin, trains were just another stepping stone for public transportation. Many people don't seem to like modern technology, and some have a fixation on trains thinking that it will somehow take care of all Marin's diverse transportation needs.

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