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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 year. 

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.

Link to Key System article

Information about transbay 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: 

Sacramento Northern


Best Regards,

The Real Mr. Science


POST SCRIPT TO THE LETTER:

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:

California High Speed Rail Authority

BART Expansion

SMART

CalTrain Electrification

Los Angeles Rail Transit Expansion


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.