Dwight Eisenhower was in the second year of his second term as president. The U.S. Army inducted Elvis Presley. NBC broadcast the first pre-recorded color TV show. The New York Giants became the San Francisco Giants.
And the last regular passenger rail service in the North Bay ended.
The year was 1958.
Today, almost six decades later, passenger rail returns to the North Bay as SMART begins service between Santa Rosa and San Rafael.
With 10 stops along a 43-mile route and train schedules coordinated with local bus systems, SMART offers commuters a convenient alternative to slow-and-go traffic on Highway 101 and to hunting for parking at Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.
In two years, when service is scheduled to reach Larkspur, with its San Francisco Bay ferry terminal, excursion traffic should provide dividends for Wine Country tourism businesses.
“It’s the beginning of a new era of transportation for the whole North Bay — a generational change for travel between two counties,” said Windsor Mayor Deborah Fudge, who has served on the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit district’s board for a dozen years.
The push to restore local rail service started in the late 1980s, paralleling efforts to expand Highway 101. Solid majorities supported ballot measures for passenger rail in 2000 and 2006, but it took until 2008 to reach the two-thirds threshold required for special taxes.
Since then, SMART has spent $600 million to install new signals and control systems, upgrade rails and crossings, build and train its staff and purchase the sleek green-and-white coaches that go into service today. The rail agency even hauled a used drawbridge all the way from Texas so trains could cross the Petaluma River without interrupting maritime traffic.
Along the way, SMART overcame obstacles including a management shakeup, an unsuccessful referendum and harsh economic realities that forced an indefinite delay for service to Windsor, Healdsburg and Cloverdale.
The start of service along the rest of the route was delayed for several years, yet public enthusiasm still seems strong. As SMART waited this summer for final clearance from federal railroad regulators, passengers packed trains for special preview rides.
There surely will be plenty of seats available when full fares go into effect after Labor Day. As SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian said recently, it took 40 years for BART to reach its present level of 400,000 riders a day. On a good day, SMART probably will attract a few thousand riders.
But we have to start somewhere. In this era of climate change, decrepit roads and chronic traffic delays, solo drivers are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Everyone benefits when more people leave their cars at home and use mass transit. And, with a little luck, the start of rail service will be a catalyst for transit-oriented development projects in Santa Rosa, Petaluma and elsewhere along the SMART line.
Sonoma County wasn’t the only place where rail service lost out to automobiles in the post-World War II era. But passenger rail is making a comeback across the country, including commuter lines in suburban communities such as Oceanside and the North Bay.
So, go ahead and get on board.