A short while ago a San Francisco area newspaper carried a
story about the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The paper reported that, to honor the old Bay
Bridge, CALTRANS, the Oakland Museum of California and U.C. Berkeley’s Bancroft
Library are joining together in compiling an oral history of the old span in
hopes of documenting the bridge's starring role in shaping the culture,
economics, politics and growth of the San Francisco Bay Area.
The newspaper reporter also wrote that the original bridge was
seen as a replacement for the many passenger ferry boats that crossed the bay
between Oakland and San Francisco and, when finished, served as a major
catalyst in the dramatic changes in where people lived and worked around the
Bay Area caused by the easy automobile commute the bridge accommodated.
The Real Mr. Science could not, however, let go unnoticed the
role of the bridge as a route for passenger trains from the East Bay and far
beyond to reach San Francisco. The
following is The Real Mr. Science’s letter to the reporter. At the end are some web-links and some
additional detail about the trans-bay rail system of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.
Dear Ms. *******
Congratulations on a fine story about the effort to
preserve the history of the Bay Bridge.
To me a major issue of our modern information-on-demand culture is the
lack of attention to preservation of our history, and I applaud your
publicizing the effort being undertaken regarding the Bay Bridge.
I do have one criticism, however. Your article does not mention the fact that,
for 20 years, a large proportion of the people who crossed the Bay Bridge did
so on trains, not in their automobiles.
The lower deck of the bridge was specifically designed for and carried
two high-speed (high speed for 1939 that is) rail tracks. The tracks were shared by the Key System, the
Southern Pacific and the Sacramento Northern rail systems. In the years just before WW II, one of the
rail lines, the Key System, alone carried over 11 million passengers over the
Bay Bridge. During the war years, when
gasoline was scarce, the Key System carried over 26 million passengers per
While the cultural shift to automobiles and buses after the
war eventually put commuter rail transit out of business until our society
regained a bit of its sanity and built BART, during the years from the
beginning of transbay rail service until the mid-1950s, a large fraction of
transbay travel was by train. If you are
curious about the details, these are two of the better web pages with
information about the trans-bay rail service.
The renaissance in rail transit as a replacement for the
automobile has a current parallel in the High Speed Rail situation. Our modern high-speed rail is planned to have
a line from the Bay Area to Sacramento that will be faster than the comfortable
but not particularly speedy AMTRAK Capital Corridor. During the pre-Bay Bridge years a similar and
very fast rail line connected San Francisco and the Bay Area to
Sacramento. Sacramento-bound passengers
could board a ferry in SF and travel to the Oakland mole. The mole, a major engineering accomplishment
in itself, was a 2 mile long pier carrying the railroad tracks out into the bay
waters deep enough for the ferry boats. At
the tip of the mole was a large building to shelter riders as they transferred between
the trains and ferry boats. There, they could
board a train on the Oakland, Antioch and Eastern RR (renamed the Sacramento
Northern in 1922) or one of the other two interurban rail lines that came to the
mole—the Key System and the Southern Pacific—and in short order were whisked to
Sacramento or even to Chico. After the Bay
Bridge was built, they could board the same train in San Francisco at the Transbay
Terminal and be in Sacramento in just a few hours. Even today, the automobile drive to Sacramento
from San Francisco during a typical rush hour would take as long, or longer,
than the Sacramento Northern trip in the 1930s and ’40s. At one time the Sacramento Northern was the
longest interurban rail line in America.
This is a link to a pretty good summary of the interurban line:
Californians should not forget that at one time rail
transit was fast, comfortable, more economical and more convenient than driving
in individual automobiles. California
showed, in the first half of the 20th Century, that high speed rail
could deliver millions of passengers to their destinations daily, safely,
speedily and inexpensively. California
has the chance to show the same results in the first half of the 21st
Century with BART extensions, the start-up of SMART (Sonoma – Marin Area Rail
Transit), the electrification of CalTrain on the San Francisco Peninsula, the major expansion of the Los Angeles rail transit system, and the
California High Speed Rail System. Check out these links to the rail projects underway in California:
In case there are skeptics out there, here are a couple of
photos, one of a commuter train on the Bay Bridge in 1938, and one showing how
popular the commuter trains on the Bay Bridge were even during the post World
War II automobile boom.