SMART adds more 3-car runs to increase rider capacity

SMART commuters had a little bit more elbow room Monday, as an extra rail car was added to three popular morning and early afternoon round-trip rides following an outpouring of interest from the community.

The increased capacity comes in response to feedback from riders who requested more space for themselves and their bicycles.

In November, the transit agency added a third rail car onto four of the route’s most popular round-trip rides after hearing reports of overcrowding and diminished space because of the unexpected volume of cyclists using the commuter train, said Jeanne Mariani-Belding, spokeswoman for SMART.

“The response was overwhelmingly positive,” Mariani-Belding said. “We had a lot more cyclists who would try to use those particular runs, and other cyclists seeing the third car was being added also requested that they have the third car added on these runs.”

The two three-car trains will now make 14 weekday trips.

Passengers on that third car cannot travel between cars when the train is in motion, unlike riders on the first two cars who can make trips to the snack bar and switch seats between cars.

After the November expansion, SMART officials said that plans for additional three-car trains would be put on hold until a gap in its afternoon schedule - northbound trains out of San Rafael don’t run between 5:29 p.m. and 6:59 p.m. - could be filled.

But given the interest from the community, and the ease in making the change, officials last week decided to go ahead with adding an additional three-car train, Mariani-Belding said.

The scheduling gap is a more complicated problem to solve, said Deb Fudge, mayor of Windsor and chairwoman of SMART’s board of directors.

“We will close that gap as soon as we can hire more engineers who can stay here,” she said. “Our problem is the cost of living in Sonoma County. The engineers that we hire … a lot of them have been engineers on freight lines, so they’ve lived in areas that are much less expensive. Our current engineers, a lot of them can’t afford to live here, and they commute.”

The latest figures from SMART show weekly ridership to be about 14,000 since service began Aug. 25.

The number is below the agency’s projection of 15,600 but includes lower than normal ridership during the holidays and the October wildfires, when the railway offered limited service, Mariani-Belding said.

Ridership revenue is averaging $75,000 a week, above the budgeted weekly average of $68,000. At this point, no plans exist to add any additional three-car trains to the rail service.

“We don’t plan ahead,” Fudge said. “We’re going to add this third-car rail set and see how it goes. We’re really nimble.”

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