Monterey County Selects Light Rail as Preferred Local Transit Alternative

Monterey Bay Transit Map» Initial line would extend from Monterey to Marina, with eventual extension to Castroville; commuter rail to San Francisco also due by 2012.

The Transportation Agency for Monterey County (TAMC), California, approved plans yesterday to open a new light rail line by 2015 between Monterey and Marina. A future phase would reach north to Castroville and east to Salinas; both would interface with planned Caltrain and Amtrak service along the corridor.

The route, which extends along the coastline, would also serve the towns of Seaside and Sand City, but the combined population of the affected municipalities totals fewer than 100,000 — meaning that this new line may serve the smallest community of any rail project planned for the United States. With only about 3,500 projected daily riders, the $200 million project won’t reach many people, but the project may well be worth its cost as it will make an already attractive section of the California coastline even more appealing.

If implemented, Monterey Bay would get diesel multiple unit trains every 15 to 30 minutes during the day serving 11 stations between downtown Monterey and Marina. The first phase of the project, which was approved by the transit agency’s board at a meeting yesterday, would cost $130 million, 60% of which TAMC hopes to be covered by the federal government’s Small Start grant program. Trains will run on the already existing Monterey Branch right-of-way, which the county purchased in 2003 for less than $10 million.

Though the cities affected are tiny on the national scale, they are relatively dense, with almost all inhabitants of the area within a mile of the proposed line. In addition, the line’s connection to Cal State’s campus just south of Marina will allow thousands of carless students easier access into downtown Monterey.

The line’s approval comes despite resistance from the Monterey City Council, which wants a more detailed environmental review of the project’s effects. With trains only running four times an hour and little construction required, though, TAMC made the right decision in moving ahead anyway. A BRT system was also being considered, though that option was dropped because of the psychological appeal of rail and the equivalent costs.

The more important advantage of implementing a train system, though, is the potential use of the corridor for future intercity rail service. The county’s transit agency is already planning an extension of Caltrain service from Gilroy to nearby Salinas, which is significantly larger at 150,000 people. The $101 million project, using existing Union Pacific tracks, would allow commuters direct access into San Francisco in three hours or San Jose in 1h45 four times a day; operations are planned for 2012 and are expected to attract around 2,000 daily users. Its funds are mostly accounted for, unlike those of the light rail project. If the light rail line is extended to Castroville as planned, inhabitants of Monterey would have a one-transfer connection to San Francisco.

But the opening of the Montery Branch to new train services would also introduce Monterey, Seaside, and Marina to intercity trains, which could use the same track. If the state of California assembles adequate subsidies, Amtrak could offer trains directly from Monterey to Sacramento or Los Angeles. Either would encourage the development of a statewide rail network; this would be true especially if the line were eventually electrified and California high-speed trains connected via Gilroy.

The light rail service proposed, then, is as much an effort to improve the state’s overall passenger network as anything else, and it opens up long-term possibilities for service expansion in Monterey Bay that won’t be possible unless incremental improvements such as this come to realization.

Image above: Proposed Monterey County Transit, from TAMC

15 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • DBX

    This is excellent news. This kind of networking and attention to speedy and efficient service and minimal transfers is exactly the sort of thing that will help to boost public transportation. Really, just about every rail line in the state of California ought to have some passenger service, and in the metropolitan areas new lines desperately need to be built.

    I think Monterey is going to be surprised at the number of day-trippers that use the line. I think those ridership projections are going to be way low. My only concern is with the DMU approach; I think to be viable in the long run it’s going to need to be electric light rail.

  • mmmm that’s nice. There are currently a bus to Monterey Bay and it takes 2 hours from San Jose so 1h 45m doesn’t sound too bad if they can pull it off.

    well one major difference is that bus don’t reqire a transfer as it goes striaght to the city while train needs one transfer. But i would take train over bus because it would be much more comfortable. hope it happens!

  • AlexB

    Seems like a good project, if all the pieces come together.

    “If the state of California assembles adequate subsidies…” Sorry, but I had to laugh at that one. Maybe in a decade or two.

  • ColoZ

    I think the distinction between “commuter” and “intercity” is pretty confused in this piece. A three-hour trip that runs four times per day is basically intercity service. Maybe the occasional super-commuter will use it, but I highly doubt commuters will be the bulk of the ridership. So I hope the trains will be fitted to Amtrak California-type standards of comfort, not what a commuter is used to (non-reclining or bench seats, no food).

  • ColoZ –
    I think you make a good point; however, the reason I referred to the proposed Salinas-Gilroy service as “commuter” is that it is an extension of the Caltrain system, which is unabashedly a commuter operation. I don’t think anyone is discussing Amtrak California-type levels of service here.

  • Winston

    Coloz,

    Nobody would commute from Salinas to San Francisco, but plenty of people commute from Salinas and Santa Cruz county to San Jose. The commuter service being talked about would use Caltrain’s gallery cars, which are the same 1950’s design used by Chicago’s Metra. The extension to Salinas would probably generate a fair number of commuters because the it will also serve Watsonville (Pajaro is a tiny town across the river from the 50,000 person city of Watsonville) and offer southern and central Santa Cruz county (Watsonville, Freedom and Aptos) commuters a faster way to get to San Jose than they currently have.

  • Winston

    Having looked at the DMU route in detail, I have a couple of comments. The first is that it’s a shame that they couldn’t find a way to get it to go all the way to cannery row to maximize tourist use, but stopping at the Aquarium is pretty good. That being said, I still think that the first phase will serve the wealthy, heavily touristed areas and CSUMB very well and would make the area nicer to vacation in as well as have placing most places you would want to go within a 15 minute walk of the train. The second phase would serve the very poor cities of Castroville and Salinas, which are quite dense have big carless populations.

    Once HSR is built, it would be very nice to have some kind of regular train service to connect Salinas with Gilroy. Caltrain is a possibility, especially since once they switch to non-FRA complaint equipment between San Jose and San Francisco they may end up breaking the railroad in two halves with the compliant half running between Salinas and San Jose and the non-compliant half running between San Jose and San Francisco. Extending the Capitols to Salinas would be another possibility, but doing so would make the capitol corridor awfully long end to end and might harm reliability. There is some money in the HSR bond to do this kind of thing and it would certainly make the Capitols an even better adjunct to HSR.

  • EngineerScotty

    No stop at Pebble Beach? :)

  • jon

    what about bringing back the del monte, the train that ran from san francisco direct to monterey? it could be a baby bullet between SF-SJ and then local to Monterey.

    i dont really understand having it end at marina, even temporarily, its seems to me it has to go to castroville or salinas at minimum. and what about extending it up to santa cruz?

    i believe newport rhode island has a private DMU line called the islander though i believe it has morphed more into a seasonal excursion train. apparently the plan is to make it into more of shuttle train to bring visitors into newport without the traffic, but theyve gone so far as to bring in RDCs on a barge for this.

  • Great article. A couple of comments from a Monterey resident (and a strong supporter of this project – I gave public comments at the Monterey City Council meeting earlier this week and at the TAMC meeting yesterday morning where this was approved).

    First, the Monterey Herald has totally misrepresented the city of Monterey’s position. The council is supportive of the train and wants it to serve downtown Monterey. A former mayor raised concerns about how the train would run through a bayfront park. The train would run along the side of the park, next to a busy thoroughfare, but this was not adequately explained to the council. Further, the council and TAMC came to an informal understanding at the meeting that if TAMC could provide visual simulations of the train through this park, the council would live with TAMC selecting the light rail option.

    Second, to Winston’s point, it won’t serve the Aquarium (which is on Cannery Row). The trains will terminate either at Portola Plaza or Custom House Plaza, which are about 1/4 mile apart. There is no ROW available to use to continue the trains on to Cannery Row or to the city of Pacific Grove. PG would like the train to continue on to their city, and residents of the Cannery Row area (like me) would like the train to serve us as well. But since there is no ROW and since the corridor is already squeezed by the Presidio of Monterey, an active military installation, this is too tricky to plan out at this time. I am confident that if this is built as projected, ridership will be high and public demand will be generated for an extension westward to serve Cannery Row and Pacific Grove.

    Third, as to service to the Bay Area, TAMC is talking not only with Caltrain, but with the Capitol Corridor about providing service to Castroville (for a cross-platform connection to the DMU service) and to downtown Salinas. Caltrain and TAMC were very close on an operating agreement, but the recent economic downturn and funding cuts have placed this in some uncertainty. Capitol Corridor is interested in serving Monterey County, whether to Salinas or to Monterey along the DMU corridor.

    Fourth, as to the phasing, the initial segment stops in Marina because the bridge over the Salinas River (between Marina and Castroville) has to be totally rebuilt. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake severely damaged the existing bridge (and caused the Highway 1 bridge nearby to be so damaged as to require a total rebuild).

  • calwatch

    I disagree with the final analysis, though. Smaller-scale BRT, like Orlando’s Lymmo, would be appropriate for this corridor, and provide much greater bang for the buck. Monterey is a small town and parking in the touristy areas does cost money, but $200 million would basically end up functioning as a parking lot shuttle from free parking outside of town to the in-town area, where therei sn’t a parking shortage – just a shortage of people who want to pay for parking (since outlying meters are often empty and residential areas are permit parking zones). I don’t see this project as competitive for federal funds, but as a local development generator like a streetcar it might do well.

  • I take small pride in having done a network design for Monterey-Salinas Transit a decade or so ago, which helped build up this corridor. As Yonah points out, what matters is not the whole size of the cities, but rather how much development is concentrated along the line. There’s great potential at most of these stations.

    But re the intercounty service, I really wish they wouldn’t drag Caltrain into this just for the sake of avoiding a cross-platform connection at Diridon station. If they just focused on Amtrak California service — probably extensions of the Capitol Corridor — I suspect they could get things going sooner and cheaper.

    In the consulting business, we joke that we must multiply our cost estimates by the number of agencies involved. It’s not always good to bring more agencies to the table.

  • Color me confused. If either Caltrain or Amtrak are to run trains out to Monterey, that line has to be built with heavy rails, not light ones. The terms literally refers to the weight of the rails in lbs/linear foot, not to traffic volume.

    Heavier trains require rails that are both stronger (more steel) and stiffer (taller with a wider base). They also need a beefier foundation for the rails. Finally, tracks that actually connect with the UPRR line at Castroville rather than merely running next to it will be limited to FRA-compliant equipment unless UPRR lets FRA grant a mixed traffic waiver.

    US Railcar (formerly Colorado Railcar) does manufacturer FRA-compliant DMU equipment with mechanical rather than series electric transmissions, making it much lighter than the behemoth locomotives Caltrain and Amtrak use today. However, it’s still a good deal heavier than e.g. the UIC-compliant Siemens Desiro DMUs that NCTD uses for its Sprinter service between Escondido and Oceanside in San Diego county.

    I think direct service from Monterey to SF and/or Sacramento is a good idea because Monterey is more of a destination than Salinas for anyone but commuters living in the latter city. However, calling the Monterey-Castroville branch line project “light rail’ in this context is misleading, even if it never again carries a single freight train.

  • jon

    any plans to rebuild the bridge at marina? what would the costs be?

  • This is good information. This type of social media and interest to rapid and effective assistance and little exchanges is exactly the type of factor that will help to increase community transit. Really, just about every railroad range in the condition of Florida ought to have some traveler assistance, and in the places new collections seriously need to be designed.

    I think Monterey is going to be amazed at the variety of day-trippers that use the range. I think those ridership forecasts are going to be way low. My only issue is with the DMU approach; I think to be practical in the lengthy run it’s going to need to be power mild railroad.

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