Take a trip on the predecessor of BART in rural Bay Area

Picture yourself on BART. Now subtract half a century of technology and add on-board dining, a ferry connection and windows that passengers could open to catch a breeze.

The image forming in your mind should start to resemble the Sacramento Northern, one of the Bay Area’s vanished electric railroads and a forerunner of BART. As late as 1940, the company operated trains from San Francisco and Oakland to Walnut Creek, Concord and points northeast all the way to Chico.

The railroad disappeared in phases. It was done in by cars, competition and the cost of renewal. Today, BART and Capitol Corridor trains have largely replaced it. Vestiges remain — BART follows the Sacramento Northern right of way between Walnut Creek and Concord, and another section is used by the Lafayette-Moraga Regional Trail.

If you’d like to do more than imagine, head to the Western Railway Museum at Rio Vista Junction in Solano County. On nearly 6 miles of restored Sacramento Northern mainline, local electric railroad enthusiasts offer rides on 20th century railcars through country so rural it hardly seems like the Bay Area.

Above the seats, replicas of ads created for 20th century passengers pitch such attractions as the Herb Caen column in the San Francisco Chronicle, sea voyages to Hawaii and “Spur, ‘the finest soda I ever tasted!’”

It’s a Bay Area travel Wayback Machine.

Trains on the Bay Bridge

The two railroads directly linked to BART are the Sacramento Northern and the Key System, a collection of East Bay streetcar lines. The Key System served San Francisco via a ferry from Oakland, then moved to tracks on the lower deck of the Bay Bridge from 1939 until 1958.

The similarity of the carriers’ routes is striking. “If you take a map of the Key System and Sacramento Northern lines, and overlay a BART map on it, you’re right there,” said Bob Towar, a volunteer and sometime train operator who handles communications for the Bay Area Electric Railroad Association . It owns the Western Railway Museum.

The Sacramento Northern was a 1928 merger of two lines built earlier in the century. It was an interurban, or a type of electric railroad that competed with the big railroads for offering agile, quiet and clean passenger service. Interurbans could serve local communities better than the big railroads, Towar said, often functioning as a bridge between small towns and farms and the major railroads.

So why tear this out, only to replace it a few decades later?

Wear, tear and worn-out trains

One reason was National City Lines, which bought streetcar systems and interurbans nationwide, then converted them to bus lines. It bought control of the Key System in 1946 and began replacing its trains with buses. The last rail line, across the Bay Bridge, ended in 1958.

A westbound three-car train east of Lafayette on June 18, 1939.

A westbound three-car train east of Lafayette on June 18, 1939.

Courtesy of the archives, Western Railway Museum/Will C. Whitaker

National City was “very anti-rail,” Towar said, and didn’t maintain the Key System trains, but interurbans were struggling to survive anyway. There was too much working against them.

The US interurban era began in the late 19th century. By the time the Depression arrived in the 1930s, the carriers needed overhauls they couldn’t afford. Lines that hung on until World War II suddenly had all the business they could handle but were worn out by the late 1940s.

“It would have taken a massive capital infusion to make them function, and in a way that worked for 1950s America, not 1910s America,” Towar said. “That’s why it was so easy for National City Lines to come in and buy them up.”

People fell in love with cars, and came to view the streetcars and interurbans as old-fashioned. “Traffic planners [began] thinking about maximizing the throughput of automobiles,” Towar said. “Not of people.”

The Sacramento Northern dropped dining car service in 1936. It ended its final Bay Area passenger trains in 1941. Freight service continued from Oakland to the Central Valley, but in 1954, the railroad’s ferry that carried trains across the upper Suisun Bay failed an inspection. The railroad scrapped it, severing the line’s direct connection between Contra Costa and Solano counties.

Logo of the Key System remains on the side of an old bus.  The privately owned mass transit system operated trollies and buses and was sold to AC Transit.

Logo of the Key System remains on the side of an old bus. The privately owned mass transit system operated trollies and buses and was sold to AC Transit.

Alan Fishleder/FlickrVision

Freight trains stopped running from Oakland to Lafayette in 1957, and the railroad continued to shrink.

The railroad mainline in Solano turned rusty, surviving because PG&E intended to build a power plant in south Solano County. There was also talk of building a steel plant. The tracks would be useful for either.

However, neither plant was built, and the Bay Area Electric Railroad Association acquired 22 miles of track in 1993 for their scrap value. The group, formed in 1946, was establishing its museum and collecting cars and engines at Rio Vista Junction. Adding a segment of the Sacramento Northern that bordered their property was an ideal fit.

On board the Wayback

On a Sunday in May, the museum was operating No. 4001, a 1926 trolley car, on an 11-mile round trip between Rio Vista Junction and Pantano.

Views of a wind farm from EDF Renewable Energy seen from inside the museum's car 4001.

Views of a wind farm from EDF Renewable Energy seen from inside the museum’s car 4001.

Courtesy of Bill Buchanan

The train rolled along at 30 mph, about half the speed of the Sacramento Northern at this location, through rolling farmland and across a few roads largely untroubled by traffic. A wind farm flanks the route to the east. South of Pantano, the tracks eventually vanish into the marshland north of Chipps Island.

The museum’s collection includes Key System cars that carried commuters across the Bay Bridge. Crews use them on trains to the Gum Grove trackside pumpkin patch each October.

“That’s the time of year we really move people, instead of just offering a scenic train ride, and those cars hold 130 people each plus standees,” Towar said. “They run every 30 minutes. And they’re full. We have some days that approach 1,000 visitors.”

Original BART cars age into the museum

Life rolls on. The Key System rail-turned-bus routes went to AC Transit. As the Bay Area grew, the value of rail travel re-emerged. BART started running trains in 1972, opened the Transbay Tube under the Bay in 1974, and has since expanded to 131 miles. The Capitol Corridor started carrying passengers from San Jose to Sacramento on the Union Pacific railroad in 1991.

Classic advertisements inside a former San Francisco Muni streetcar, part of the collection at the Western Railway Museum.

Classic advertisements inside a former San Francisco Muni streetcar, part of the collection at the Western Railway Museum.

Courtesy of Bill Buchanan

More expansion is in the works. Link21, sponsored by BART and the Capitol Corridor, seeks to expand and transform passenger rail in the 21-county “megaregion” encompassing the greater San Francisco and Monterey Bay areas, the Sacramento area, and the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

Meanwhile, BART is replacing its original fleet from 50 years ago, and the museum is raising money to purchase one of BART’s original cars for its proposed Rapid Transit History Center.

This remnant of the Sacramento Northern no longer goes to any Bay Area cities, or really to anywhere except the past, but many people enjoy the trip. Towar has seen the smiles when he operates the trains. “It’s so addictive when you are doing something that just makes people incredibly happy,” he said. “Little kids are just so into it. You can’t deny the enthusiasm.”

The Western Railway Museum is open weekends year-round. They have extended hours in the summer, but if you plan to go, it’s good to check ahead. The museum is seeking volunteers in many different areas and offers training. If interested, email volunteer@wrm.org.

Bill Buchanan is a writer, editor and host of the radio program/podcast “Davisville” on KDRT-LP 95.7 FM in Davis, where he lives.

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