Could Napa County have a railroad revolution?

Napa County has enough train right-of-way in place for a Railroad Revolution — or, if one looks to history, a Railroad Revival.

Trains in the county once carried residents to work and visitors to play. Today, they carry freight and Napa Valley Wine Train guests who dine while on wine country excursions, but not commuters.

The question is whether a Napa County passenger train system would be a rail revolution or a financial train wreck.

Napa County is crossed by train tracks. One line runs north-south from northern Napa Valley to Vallejo. The other line runs east-west in the south county. They meet at Napa Junction near American Canyon.

Put passenger trains service on both lines, provide a transfer station in American Canyon and many of the region's destinations would be accessible by rail.

Rex Stults would consider riding to work on a train that went up the Napa Valley. He commutes by car from his city of Napa home to his St. Helena job with Napa Valley Vintners.

"I would absolutely be interested in that," he said. "To be able to sit and relax and read the Register and have a cup of coffee on my way to work or even take a nap on the way home from work rather than sit in traffic and watch the bumper in front of me would be greatly preferable."

He recently took a train from Lyon to Paris in France. He called the experience magical.

"But I also don't want to be perceived as Pollyannaish," Stults said. "I know it would have its challenges based on the current structures."

Geoff Wilcox commutes by car from Fairfield in Solano County to Napa County's airport industrial area, traveling on Highway 12 through Jameson Canyon. He leaves a half-hour early to avoid morning rush hour. He estimates evening rush-hour traffic adds 20 minutes to his journey.

Wilcox can envision taking a train instead.

"Yes, that would have been a good idea 10 years ago," he said. "Like the rest of the country, everyone's overworked. Any way to reduce any kind of stress in one's day would be helpful."

There is already regional passenger rail service close to Napa County. To the east, Capitol Corridor passenger trains run from the Sacramento area to San Jose, with stops in neighboring Solano County.

And to the west, Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) trains run from Santa Rosa to Larkspur. A Napa passenger train system could link with both lines.

Obstacles to re-creating a Napa County train-centric transportation system are formidable. Yet the idea is mentioned not only by rail fans, but also by transportation officials.

At least two Napa County passenger rail studies have been done over the past two decades, the most recent in 2019. Potential Napa County passenger rail service is included in the California State Rail Plan, a master plan for the next 20 years.

The idea of Napa County passenger rail may not be picking up steam, but at least it's on the tracks, if only idling at the station.

"I think there's always going to be an interest," Napa Valley Transportation Authority Executive Director Kate Miller said. "I think people use rail. There's a desire to get people out of their cars and that is a very effective way of doing that, but it's also really expensive."

Napa Valley-to-Vallejo line

Passenger trains in the early 20th century ran from Napa Valley to the Vallejo, traveling through the heart of wine country along the way. Tracks exist for them to do so again today.

In fact, the Napa Valley Wine Train runs trains from the city of Napa to St. Helena for people who want a leisurely, fine dining experience. But this is a niche service rather than a mass transit workhorse.

Train advocates see the potential to do more. Workers in the wine industry could commute by rail and avoid Highway 29. A Napan wanting to go to San Francisco could take a train to the Vallejo ferry terminal.

Vintner Chuck McMinn, who has spearheaded the Napa Valley Vine Trail bike-and-pedestrian path effort, looked at creating passenger train service on this line a decade ago.

McMinn and local developer Keith Rogal formed Napa Transit Investors. They thought passenger trains could run from Kennedy Park in Napa to Charles Krug winery north of St. Helena, where the tracks end. The 22-mile trip could have 25 stops.

Things didn't work out, but McMinn still likes the idea.

"In my view, we need another transportation corridor to substantially relieve traffic," he said recently.

Napa Valley has two major north-south roads — Highway 29 and Silverado Trail. Both have rush-hour congestion. In a county that boasts its rural, wine country charm, there's little enthusiasm to turn these roads into freeways blasting past vineyards.

Rail could provide that alternative transportation corridor, McMinn said. The tracks could be upgraded to handle light rail with trains that go 50 mph. Stations would be added.

To be successful, passenger trains running from Vallejo to St. Helena would have to serve more than commuters. They would have to offer tourists packages at a premium price, McMinn said.

Daily commuters might buy a 30-day pass at a rate of $8 to $10 per roundtrip per day, he said. Tourists coming from San Francisco on the Vallejo ferry and boarding the train for a wine country vacation could pay more and get more than a quick trip upvalley.

None of this could happen without Napa Valley Wine Train blessings, given its operator, Napa Valley Railroad, owns the Napa Valley section of train tracks.

"It is certainly possible to consider activating commuter rail along our corridor," Wine Train General Manager Nathan Davis said. "There would be many complexities involved, such as coordinating right-of-way for the tracks south of Streblow Drive that we do not own. There is also no known source of funding for what would essentially be a public service."

In 2003, Napa and Solano counties had R.L. Banks & Associates study passenger rail.

A Vallejo-to St. Helena service could have stations at such places as American Canyon, Napa Valley College, downtown Napa, northern city of Napa near Trancas Street, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford and St. Helena. Four trains could leave hourly during both the morning and evening commute hours.

Capital costs could be $138 million. Operation costs could be $6.9 million annually, with only $1.1 million coming in ticket revenues the study concluded. Those are in 2002 dollars.

The study also said considerable savings could be realized by operating commuter and visitor services on the same routes.

One factor to consider is how commuter rail service would affect rush-hour traffic at major crossings. The tracks in the city of Napa cross such streets as Trower Avenue, Lincoln Avenue, Soscol Avenue and Jefferson Street.

South County line

Train tracks also link Suisun-Fairfield in Solano County with Novato in Marin County, a 41-mile journey. Along the way, they pass such south Napa County sights as Jameson Canyon near Highway 12, American Canyon, wetlands and Carneros wine country.

Passenger trains on this route could link with the Capitol Corridor system in Solano County and the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) in Marin County. Many wine country workers live in Solano County, where housing is cheaper.

SMART owns much of the tracks in Napa County. In 2019, it released a study on establishing passenger rail from the Suisun-Fairfield station to Novato.

"As we see it, this passenger rail connection could provide tremendous benefits to Californians in the form of transportation options, reduction of greenhouse gases and congestion relief," the study said.

Startup costs would be $780 million to $1 billion. Tracks would have to be improved and stations added at American Canyon, Schellville and Sears Point, that 2019 study said.

"We don't really have anything to add other than what's in the feasibility study," SMART spokesperson Matt Stevens said recently. "The funding remains to be identified and pursued."

David Schonbrunn of Train Riders Association of California called the SMART cost estimates "preposterous."

"Public agencies gold-plate their infrastructure," he said. "Those numbers are for a completely new rail line. Railroads have a completely different approach to infrastructure. They do what's needed to be safe, and no more. They invest where tracks are worn, or where they need more tracks due to capacity constraints."

Train Riders Association of California in 2018 presented its own plan to create train service on this line. It used the strategy of "build it as cheaply as possible, as quickly as possible, to get service into operation now."

Does it make sense?

One big question is whether passenger train service can make enough money to be realistic. If they build it, will enough people come and pay enough so that subsidies aren't outrageous?

Napa County can look to the two railroad services nearby for possible clues.

The Capitol Corridor service between Sacramento and San Jose was started by Caltrans and Amtrak in 1991. It has gone from six daily trains to 30 daily trains. It has gone from serving 463,000 riders in 1998 to 1.77 million in 2019, before the pandemic put mass transit in general into a tailspin.

In 2018-19 before the pandemic, the service cost $61 million to operate and had a 60% farebox recovery rate. That doesn't include a few million dollars for administration and marketing. The state paid $28.1 million, a Capitol Corridor budget said.

"We believe the Capitol Corridor has been moderately successful, with 5,000-plus daily rides and a post-COVID ridership recovering to close to pre-COVID levels," said Schonbrunn of the Train Riders Association of California.

The Capitol Corridor service is on a bigger scale than would be a Napa County service. It is along a 170-mile-long corridor in the heart of what some call the Bay Area-Sacramento "mega-region" and is governed by a joint powers authority stretching across eight counties.

The SMART service in Sonoma and Marin counties offers another example. The service is along a 45-mile corridor from Sonoma County airport to Larkspur. Plus, SMART owns the south Napa County train tracks.

SMART has its roots in 2002 state legislation establishing the transportation district. Sonoma and Marin voters in 2008 passed Measure Q, a quarter-cent sales tax to help fund the venture.

But SMART has had growing pains. Farebox recovery in 2019 before the pandemic was only 15%.

In 2020, voters rejected Measure I to extend the sales tax funding beyond the 2029 expiration date. Opponents talked of high operating costs and modest ridership.

That raises the question of whether SMART is a model for Napa County or a cautionary tale.

"We like to think of ourselves as the little train that did," said Stevens on behalf of SMART. "We were successful in getting a railroad built in record time, actually."

Construction began in 2012 and operations in 2017, he said. Existing tracks were torn out, a new base grade installed and concrete ties and continual welded rail added and bridges replaced.

Schonbrunn said SMART was promoted by environmentalists who urged development clustered into walkable train station areas. But the land use changes have been slow in coming and remain controversial.

A new SMART general manager who previously ran the rail systems in Salt Lake City could make a difference. The Salt Lake City model is based on frequent rail service with greater densities, he said.

"We have high hopes he will be able to restore public confidence in SMART, so that it can pass a sales tax in a few years to enable to keep operating," Schonbrunn said.

Napa County has its believers that local passenger rail service will someday get back on track.

"It is a very valuable asset that at some point — with traffic getting worse and worse and the pressure to reduce greenhouse gas getting more and more — at some point we will look more seriously at this corridor," McMinn said.

American Canyon Mayor Leon Garcia would like to see passenger trains pass through his city. Even if that's a dream for the future, he sees one crucial step that can be taken today — make certain rail right-of-way isn't abandoned.

"Hang on to the rail line," he said. "At some point, it makes sense."

You can reach Barry Eberling at 707-256-2253 or