Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Sonoma Wine train blues

A (wine) train?...in Sonoma? There’s been some newspaper discussion and campaigning for a rail service restart in Sonoma County and the adjacent Marin County for the past few years, including a few ballot measures. Some have even proposed that there could be a Sonoma Wine Train service to rival (compliment) the Napa Valley Wine Train (NVWT). (see these links: News in brief from the North Coast, NORTH BAY New debate over light rail for North Bay, HEARINGS IN JANUARY ON MARIN-SONOMA RAIL LINE EIR) The commuter rail service is possible…but no Wine Train for Sonoma County… It’s probably not going to happen, although I’d love it if it did.

First of all, the idea is to reduce road traffic by starting a commuter line from Cloverdale to Larkspur – which really doesn’t fit in with the vision of a slow moving, bucolic train ride through a pristine vineyard setting.

Secondly, there’s only one set of tracks for most of that distance, so a tourist train occupying the line while the commuters have to wait on a siding (or vice versa) would detract from the experience for either. It’s not impossible, but not practical for the commuters (who should be the ones to get the first benefit from the local Marin-Sonoma taxes that’d be raised for the project), and I don’t think it’d fly with the voters getting anything less than first dibs on the service. I think one of the main reasons that the NVWT prospers, or even possible for that matter, is/was due largely to the fact that there is no conflict with other rail services – especially those funded by public taxes (I’ll mention conflicts with neighbors below).

Thirdly, while Sonoma County is arguably as pretty and romantic as Napa Valley, the Sonoma rail line doesn’t transect as much vineyard as does the NVWT, although the run North of Santa Rosa to Cloverdale does, and is quite nice. Expanding such a run further into Hopland or Ukiah would be even more attractive – if you could keep the rail line maintained. Alexander Valley would be a picture perfect view from the rail...

Fourth, there’s the issue of tracks which haven’t really seen too much service in the last decade (Sonoma County in general), or are abandoned or removed (Vineburg into Sonoma and Glen Ellen, and Kenwood too), or just hard to maintain in general - due to damage from winter storms (Hopland, Willits, Ukiah). The length of Sonoma Valley from Vineburg in the Carneros, to Melita Station just South-East of Santa Rosa, would be the most breathtaking, but would be impossible as the tracks through that entire passage were removed years ago. The visions of slowly rolling into Kenwood station on Christmas Eve with all the lights on is something to imagine…well sadly, it won’t ever happen – the track is gone. Period. Unfortunate, too, as the HWY 12 road is just one lane in each direction, and routinely gets clogged with tourists and commuters both vying to use it. Removing a portion of either of those groups from that roadway would be helpful – but again, impossible because that track’s been removed for decades. The longer these tracks lay silent, the more disrepair and removal we will see...until nothing of it remains at all.

Lastly, but most vocally in nature, would be the opposition of the neighbors to the increased noise and inconveniences. Most people don’t recall when there was daily routine rail traffic in Sonoma County, and many of the homes built or purchased in the last 20 years haven’t had much impact from what has essentially become a dormant line. Now I’m well old enough to remember train service into Sonoma County, though even by my childhood that service was freight based and no longer carried passengers. I still recall all the vices of a kid near a large moving diesel engine – putting pennies on the tracks so they’d get flattened, waving to the engineer & conductors, secretly climbing onto the freight cars when they’d be parked by themselves…even jumping off a trestle in the early summer into the water of a creek below. But even though I wouldn’t mind seeing the trains back again, it would have some negative impact on the home values nearby. I don’t know how this would be mitigated, or even how much traffic congestion the rail is supposed to relieve from the busy 101 corridor, much less whether it’s a realistic estimate. The vociferous opposition of the neighbors in Napa still rings out in my memory…I don’t need to see or hear that again.


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