Comment: SMART foes work to whip up freight train fears
- Published Tuesday, July 17, 2007, by the Marin Independent Journal
Why SMART isn't about freight
By David Porter
THE NOVATO City Council will hold an important forum Thursday night
on the resumption of freight train service.
The hearing will start at 6:30 p.m. at the Novato Unified School
District Office. The projected increase in freight traffic and the
need for additional environmental impact analysis will be discussed.
Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit is being requested to have the
analysis completed. Beyond this, let's leave SMART out of the
Opponents of SMART frequently mix SMART into freight discussions
where it doesn't belong. "Follow the dots," they advise.
We need to recognize that SMART and freight are two separate issues,
worthy of two separate discussions. In particular, we must de-link
SMART from freight in three places.
* Freight doesn't depend on financing from SMART. The North Coast
Railroad Authority is responsible for refurbishing the tracks for
freight operations. SMART will fund the upgrades for higher speed
passenger service. SMART or no SMART, freight will be rolling down
through Northern Novato.
* Freight won't impact SMART's scheduling. Passenger and freight
operations that share tracks deliver on-time service all over the
world, with freight trains running all day long without having to
run at night.
The struggles Amtrak and Altamont Commuter Express have had with
freight along the single-track sections between Oakland and San Jose
are often noted. Neither Amtrak nor ACE control the dispatching.
Union Pacific does -- it owns the right of way. SMART owns the right
of way from Cloverdale to Larkspur and SMART will dispatch all
trains. Trains run on time because scheduling is arranged to take
advantage of passing tracks, allowing dispatchers to give passenger
trains priority. Five percent to 10 percent of SMART's tracks will
have passing tracks designed specifically to accommodate maximum
length freight trains.
A better comparison to SMART is the San Diego Coaster, which controls
the right of way and does the dispatching. Forty passenger trains
operate daily, sharing a single track with Burlington Northern Santa
Fe's freight trains. The Coaster has a 93 percent on-time performance
In Texas, the Trinity Rail Express operates passenger service between
Dallas and Fort Worth, dispatching the corridor's 49 passenger trains
that share the tracks (50 percent are single-track) with 10 to 15
daily freight trains. On-time performance for TRE averages over 98
percent. It shouldn't be a problem, then. for SMART to accommodate
NCRA's six trains per day along with its passenger service. Freight
or no freight, SMART can operate on time.
* Freight doesn't determine the type of trains SMART must choose.
"If it weren't for freight, we could run electrified light rail." We
could, but light rail isn't the appropriate choice, as it is designed
for distances of 20 miles or less, slower speeds and more frequent
stops. Commuter rail, chosen by SMART, is well suited for its long
corridor (70 miles) and speeds of 70 mph to 80 mph.
Furthermore, the cost of an electrified light rail system would be
uneconomical: $25 million to $30 million per mile (pages 4-5 of the
draft environmental impact report). In the future, should SMART wish
to electrify, this could still be done, with or without freight. The
modern, self-powered railcars (diesel multiple units) that SMART
selected, will use state-of-the-art, clean diesel exhaust technology
and ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel. This system has been described by
Scientific American (March 2007) as, "nearly as green as hybrids."
BART, in fact, chose self-propelled railcars for its Contra Costa
extension. They are sometimes classified as light rail, because
they are so much smaller, cleaner and quieter than conventional,
locomotive-hauled rail. If freight were not in the picture, SMART
would most likely choose the self-propelled rail cars due to their
So, at Novato's forum on freight Thursday, let's talk about freight
and leave SMART for another discussion.
David Porter is a Marin educator and resident of Novato. He is
actively involved with Friends of SMART.
[BATN: See also:
Editorial: SMART quiet zones to appease train-phobic NIMBYs
Opponents using NCRA freight projections to delay, kill SMART
Freight tail of moribund NCRA seeks to wag SMART dog
February '08 SMART re-vote unlikely due to freight study request