Let’s talk about riding the rails

A Chico resident for six years, Malcolm Thornley Jr. is a former president of San Francisco’s Council of District Merchants. His primary modes of transportation are bicycle, motorcycle and public transit.

Butte County has a good variety of transit options, although they are limited. Increasing rail service in the North State would make it easier to get around, but would it have other benefits? Is it even possible? Would something else work better?

Past studies have not shown enough projected ridership to support a rail link in the North State, but the most recent one was done in 1995. There has been phenomenal growth here during this period.

Rail is looking better for other reasons, too: gas prices, more congested highways, pollution, housing density, land-use issues, commercial development and job access.

A limited but significant number of people will use rail if it is reliable. To gauge the number of people who might use rail, it would be best to plan for success rather than project trends. These are examples of the kinds of things that might feed riders to the train: commuter hubs, airport connections (Redding, Chico, Sacramento), excursions to casinos and regional recreation areas, regional shopping, businesses near stations and connection to the proposed high-speed rail to Southern California and to the Capitols commuter line.

Planning on this scale is not the kind of thing a city or county can do alone.

The way it is now, regional planning agencies make recommendations for spending funds for transit projects. Many projects compete for limited funds. If a project is not named and funds are not identified to carry it out, nothing happens.

We need to be bold in concept and actively pursue solutions in order to expand rail service. Take, as an example, the Capitols—an Auburn-to-San Jose connection that is looking for new riders. Lincoln has added thousands of new homes. Marysville/Yuba City already has commuter bus links to Sacramento. Could a commuter line up from Roseville be combined with an extension of service up to Chico and Redding?

Any passenger rail service in the North State faces enormous funding and integration issues. Union Pacific, which owns the tracks, has stated it will not discuss additional passenger service. Additional mainline tracks, frequent sidings, improved signaling and headway management, rehabilitation of short-line track for alternate routes and rolling equipment will be expensive.

Would establishing a North State transportation committee work? Business groups, unions and community groups, as well as local governments, need to evaluate and project the benefits of increased rail service.

Now is the time for discussion. If we wait, it will only become more complicated and costly.