Could an excursion train start rolling through Sonoma and Marin counties in the near future, bringing Wine Country tourists from Napa Valley and San Francisco via the Larkspur ferry terminal?
That's the ambitious plan Richard Deringer, a consultant for Odyssey Development, LLC, and Ryder Homes of California, floated this past spring to staff of Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) and North Coast Railroad Authority.
He envisions the train running on the weekends, showing scenes from Sonoma Wine Country and local attractions and sponsorships from tourism-oriented businesses, such as wineries, hotels, shops and entertainment venues paying for track use, acquisition of the vehicles and a company to operate it.
"If I can get a wine train running by the beginning of 2013, it would get people excited about a train and they would be OK with paying sales taxes, because they see something is happening," he said.
Wendy Peterson, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, hadn't yet heard of the idea. "That sounds fantastic; what fun that would be," she said. Already, a bus operator has come into the Carneros winegrowing region with hop-on, hop-off service -- Vine Line.
Mr. Deringer wants to start train service somewhat similar to that of Napa Valley Wine Train Inc., whose fleet of two locomotives and nine cars roll as fast as 22 miles an hour on a three-hour trip between Napa and St. Helena. The 21-year-old company, which trademarked "wine train," is one of the top 10 visitor draws in the valley, transporting about 135,000 people per season, up from 100,000 a couple of years ago, according to Andrea Guzman, promotions and partnership manager.
The falling value of the dollar in the past few years has dramatically increased ridership from abroad, she said. Also boosting travel are a shuttle service from the Vallejo ferry terminal and expanded bus excursion trips to wineries from stops along the route.
Odyssey controls approved and proposed commercial developments along the tracks south of Sonoma, in central Santa Rosa and in Windsor. He suggested these as places for the trains to stop for passengers to disembark for waiting buses, shuttles and limousines.
"Rick is a very big thinker, and if it were operated for him it would be great, but it doesn't," said Valerie Brown, a Sonoma County supervisor whose district includes Sonoma Valley and who is SMART board chairwoman. "His idea isn't probably very doable."
First, SMART has priority for track access between Larkspur and Cloverdale under a lease agreement from the railroad and has major construction projects planned between now and 2015 or 2016, when commuter service is now expected to start between San Rafael and Santa Rosa. Service to Larkspur would come later. Under federal law, excursion trains must operate slower than 25 miles per hour and have railbed requirements between those of freight and commuter service.
Second, the railroad freight operator, Palo Alto-based NWP Co., which just restarted freight rail service to Marin and Sonoma counties this summer, has first dibs on excursion service, limited by SMART's operations, according to railroad Executive Director Mitch Stogner.
"Given the magnitude of the SMART construction project, it makes the most sense to wait until they have the track mostly rehabilitated," said NWP President John Williams. "We do not want to start the service and then have to close it down or have irregular service."