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Trip Report

Bay Area Ramblings

July 3-8, 2008


I had an invitation for a respite in California's East Bay area. To get there, I flew American Eagle, American Airlines' regional jet service from Harrisburg, PA to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. SkyLink, the airport's people mover whisked me to another terminal where I boarded a McDonald Douglas SA 80. This commodious craft featured 3-2 seating, and my three hour flight to San Francisco went smoothly. Weather was clear so I had a nice view of the Rockies even though the jet's altitude was 35,000 feet.

My host met me and drove me to his home in San Ramon. A main street in San Ramon is Bollinger Canyon Rd. which, in some stretches, is a boulevard with trees and shrubs in a center island. There is also a sign amongst the flora that reads: "Reserved for future light rail line." No one seems to know the message significance.

Weather continued to be warm, but dry with postcard perfect skies. On July 5, my host and I along with three other people boarded a BART train at the Dublin/Pleasanton terminus for a ride into "The City." as locals refer to their city on the bay. The BART train zipped along, although underground and under the bay it is very loud.

Running on five foot gauge, there is plenty of room, but upholstered seats and rumpled carpeting could use some upgrades. The cars could also use a good washing. At Powell Street the plan was to ride a cable car to Fisherman's Wharf. Hoards of people were in town on holiday so the queue for cable cars was long. Dispatchers ran the cars in series of threes with long intervals in between so our group decided not to endure a wait.

We walked through downtown and ended up at the ferry terminal on the Embarcadero.

The ferry terminal is a bustling marketplace of boutique shops, bistros, wine stores, and produce stands. With roundtrip tickets in hand, we each-in non-hightech fashion-tore off one part of our tickets and deposited them in an open farebox. We would dump the remaining part on the return. Our transport would be a three deck passenger-only craft equipped for indoor and outdoor seating. There was a full bar on board for those who want to get sloshed while waves sloshed against the boat.

The captain had us underway shortly. Astern was the magnificent Bay Bridge, once a viaduct for East Bay interurban trains, but I could only see buses and cars on the bridge's two decks. The San Francisco Golden Gate Transportation District ferry took about thirty minutes to cross the bay while dodging container ships and sailboats. Destination was Sausalito, a trendy town of art and antique shops and restaurants. Throngs of people filled streets, sidewalks, and restaurants. Our group could not get a seating for at least an hour, so we bought sandwiches at a waterfront deli and picnicked in a park.

On the return, the ferry filled to capacity (700)). I felt as if I were an immigrant. In addition to passengers, the boat had cargo space for bicycles. Our group had an early dinner reservation at a restaurant near San Francisco's convention center. We thought about taking a PCC car or restored Milan Peter Witt streetcar on the F line which passed in front of the Ferry Terminal, but all showed signs of bursting at the seems with tourists.

Someone spotted a taxi in SUV style that was large enough to hold all of us. The driver, a Jamaican, headed up Market St. and then abruptly pulled over to the curb. A nattily dressed man took the front passenger seat.

"My friend," said the driver off-handedly. Before anybody could make a comment, the driver proceeded up Market St and then launched into an extended animated conversation with his pal in a Caribbean patois laced with references about "chicken." The chicken chatter continued until we arrived at the restaurant where I paid the fare. Expect the unexpected in San Francisco.

After enjoying fine cuisine for which San Francisco is famous, our group walked seven blocks to Convention Center BART station and a fast ride back to Pleasanton. The train did slow when it approached the construction site for the new West Dublin station located between Castro Valley and Pleasanton. Because of trackwork, our train ran" wrong way" for about two miles before taking a crossover to the main track into Pleasanton.

Sunday, July 6 was, weather-wise, a repeat of Saturday. This would be a day of vintage railroading, first on the Niles Canyon Railway and then the Roaring Camp and Big Trees Railroad. My host drove me to Sunol in Niles Canyon. As we pulled into a parking lot next to a restored wood frame Southern Pacific station, a man in a conductor's uniform came over to us.

"Are you here to ride the train?" he asked.


"Well, if you'd arrived thirty seconds sooner, I could have held the train." We saw the train easing out of the station. "Drive down to Niles and you'll beat the train. There's a station down there where you can buy roundtrip tickets."

We roared down the canyon road paralleling bucolic Alameda Creek. We saw the railroad station from the main highway, and as we slowed in preparation for turning, we noticed barricades blocking access. A woman in a reflective vest told us to park along the highway and walk to the station. We were fifteen minutes ahead of the train which lumbered into view and came to a stop next to Union Pacific's line that also serves Capital Corridor trains and Amtrak's Coast Starlight. Niles is on the other side of the tracks and has a parking lot for patrons. A vintage bus provides connecting service to the station as crossing the railroad tracks is not an option.

One of the members of the Pacific Locomotive Association, the group that runs the railway told me that plans are afoot to build passing sidings to increase train frequency. In addition the group is building a wye at Niles so trains don't have to run pull-pull as they do now. The association has 2,000 members but is always looking for more people to help with train operation and maintenance. There's a lot of stuff to maintain too as evident in the railway's Brightside Yard. The steam engine in the video was not in service over Fourth of July holiday.

The train ride over jointed rails was quite smooth and the canyon scenery which included the babbling brook of Alameda Creek and the green foliage along the canyon sides were stunning. Highlight of the ride were two grade crossings "protected" by quaint wigwags.

The California Western "Skunk" shown in the video did not run the day I was there.

For more information, click on Niles Canyon Railway.

After our train ride, my host and I bought sandwiches at a deli in Niles. Niles is a touristy town which came into its own, according to Niles Canyon Railway folk, thanks to the establishment of NCRY. There are a number of "junktique" shops and a Charlie Chaplin museum. A Charlie Chaplin impersonator was walking about they day I was in town. Apparently Niles in 1914-1916, was a popular film production site prior to Hollywood, and Chaplin starred in many films produced in the town.

About an hour later, we arrived in Felton, home of Roaring Camp Railroads. This is a for-profit operation which runs a standard gauge diesel line from redwood forests to a boardwalk in Santa Cruz and and a three-foot gauge steam-powered line to the top of Bear Mountain. My host and I would ride the latter, and we arrived just in time for the last train of the day.

The Dixiana Shay locomotive pulled a six car load up 8.5% grades to the top of the mountain. Prior to 1976, the train gained ascendancy via a Georgetown Loop-style trestle. Unlike Georgetown, this trestle was wood making it vulnerable to a forest fire. The charred remnants remain including ghostly twisted rail dangling overhead. Rather than rebuild, the railroad installed three switchbacks. Balloon tracks at each end of the line turn the train to the "right" direction. Views in the forest on this ninety minute ride are spectacular. Looking up at 300 foot redwoods is mind-boggling to say the least. Despite train whistle blasts, some deer ventured nearby. For more information, click on:

Time passed too quickly and soon I was back on BART headed for San Francisco International Airport. I left the Pleasanton train at Balboa Park and changed for an airport destined train. At the airport, an escalator brought me to the AirTrain people mover.

This guided rubber-tired transport took me quickly to American Airlines which in turn flew me to Dallas/Fort Worth. After we landed, a stewardess broadcast on the PA system:

"Anybody needing a wheelchair, please come to the front of the plane." Okay, but it would help if you brought the wheelchair first.

Lame attempt at humor aside, I switched planes in Dallas and returned to Harrisburg with happy memories of train riding in the Bay Area.

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