SMART revises passenger rail service after facing criticism

Facing public backlash over its announced schedule for passenger rail service, Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit scrambled to release a revised version Tuesday - one that officials say shortens wait times during peak commute hours, though gaps of an hour or more still exist during some of those periods.

The updated schedule - ?released less than a week after SMART unveiled the earlier version - still includes 34 trips on weekdays, with the same number of trains. It shortened some 90-minute waits to hourlong gaps and retained 30-minute ?intervals across most of the peak hours of operation.

The additional arrival and departure times are geared to appeal to more commuters, planned to be the rail line’s key group of users. The new timetable, for example, includes a new 7:30 a.m. southbound departure from downtown Santa Rosa and a new 5:29 p.m. departure northbound from San Rafael.

The adjusted timetable resulted from work over the weekend by SMART officials and representatives of regional transportation agencies following a deluge of complaints since last week on the rail agency’s ?social media sites. Debora Fudge, SMART’s board chairwoman and the mayor of Windsor, said it became clear that what the rail agency put out originally was not going to work.

“Within six days we’ve changed it (the schedule) and I’m getting a lot of thumbs up from people who want to travel to Larkspur and San Rafael, and the other way,” Fudge said of the newly revised schedule.

It also includes an earlier start time for the first southbound train, which is now scheduled to depart the north Santa Rosa station at Airport Boulevard at 4:19 a.m., 30 minutes earlier than previously announced.

SMART is planning to launch passenger service by next month - a timeline officials said included operating trains on the schedule for two weeks. The revised timetable released Tuesday does not alter the start date plans, according to Fudge.

Will Mast, a Petaluma environmental engineer who commutes to Novato, said Tuesday he is pleased with the changes. Mast’s discontent with the earlier version was highlighted Sunday in a Press Democrat story.

“I feel that the updated schedule greatly increases the likelihood of ridership for me and my co-workers,” said Mast, whose Novato office is across the street from the San Marin station. “While SMART can’t hope to please everyone, this update has a much better shot at pleasing a far greater number and improving the odds of reasonable starting ridership.”

John Oblad, a software engineer for Autodesk who commutes from Santa Rosa to San Rafael, also praised the update, saying the addition of a 7:30 a.m. departure from downtown Santa Rosa and a 5:35 p.m. departure from San Rafael better suits his schedule.

But Oblad voiced a new concern that if he misses the 5:35 p.m. train, he will be stuck in San Rafael until he can catch the next northbound train, at ?7:05 p.m.

“I hope there will be room,” he said.

That particular 90-minute gap is one of several that still exist during peak commute hours on the revised timetable. Some have been reduced to 60-minute windows, which did not exist in the previous schedule. Most trains will operate on a 30-minute interval during peak commute periods.

Under the new schedule, for example, there will now be trains arriving in San Rafael at 7:26 a.m., ?8:26 a.m. and 8:56 a.m.

The previous version had trains arriving at that station at only 7:26 a.m. and 8:56 a.m.

Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, has not responded to requests for comment on the schedule since last week. A spokeswoman Tuesday said Mansourian was out of town.

Mansourian apparently did not brief SMART’s board prior to unveiling the train schedule at the directors’ meeting last week in Petaluma. After that meeting, the rail agency was engulfed by a wave of criticism over its final timetable, which, along with fares, will determine for many whether they use the trains.

Fudge on Tuesday offered mixed reviews for how the schedule was rolled out.

“Sometimes things are done very quickly because we have to because of all the complications of getting rail service started,” she said. “Do I wish we’d had a month to look at the schedule? Yes, I do. Did we fix it in less that a week? Yes, we did.”

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who also sits on the SMART board, said he would have preferred knowing in advance the schedule included 90-minute gaps.

“I always appreciate a heads-up,” Rabbitt said.

The revised schedule still does not appear to meet the mandate for SMART’s service as outlined in the 2008 ballot measure North Bay voters approved to support the rail initiative. It stated passenger service would be delivered at 30-minute intervals during “rush hours.”

A 2014 strategic plan for the system also stated that trains would be “spread across the morning and evening commute hours with roughly 30-minute headways,” and that trains would travel approximately 30 minutes apart.

SMART is planning to launch service with four two-car trains operating along the 43-mile line from north Santa Rosa to San Rafael. That will leave the rail agency will three train sets in reserve.

It wasn’t entirely clear Tuesday how SMART staff was able to make adjustments to the schedule so soon after Mansourian told SMART directors last week that any significant alternations would throw off the entire timetable.

Fudge noted the earlier 4:19 a.m. start time for the first southbound train, saying it was “necessary to do” in order to make adjustments in the overall schedule.

She said she expects “very few people” will be on that train, which arrives in San Rafael at ?5:26 a.m. The first departure from San Rafael is now scheduled at 5:59 a.m., versus 6:29 a.m. under the previous timetable.

Mansourian told SMART directors last week that the rail agency does not have enough engineers to operate trains on 30-minute intervals across the board. He also referenced the challenge of recruiting and keeping personnel given the North Bay’s relative high cost of living.

SMART currently has 17 engineer-conductors who earn between $51,503 and $83,250 annually. Mansourian is seeking an additional four engineer positions in next year’s fiscal budget starting July 1, and to increase top pay scale to $85,051.

That salary translates to more than $40 an hour.

SMART says it is also hampered by federal railroad regulations that place limitations on the number of hours engineers can work.

But Tony Withington, a retired international representative for the Amalgamated Transit Union, asserted that the staffing problems are of SMART’s own making. He said rather than cross-training bus drivers from Golden Gate Transit or implementing a new trainee program for engineers, SMART insisted on hiring only experienced train operators.

Withington, a former bus driver, said SMART has struggled to retain its operators.

“He’s having a hell of a time keeping the employees he has,” Withington said of Mansourian.

Fudge acknowledged that SMART has lost a “few” train engineers because of the high cost of living in the North Bay.

“We’re recruiting again, but it’s a lot of different complications,” the board chairwoman said.

“This is where we are starting and we intend to beef up our service as soon as we can. I think that will happen in pretty short order.”

SMART had originally planned to put six trains in service and keep one in reserve.

All 14 of the agency’s engine cars, or diesel multiple units, as they officially are known, underwent engine replacements over the past seven months because of a faulty crankshaft design.

Fudge said the engine problems have no bearing on SMART planning to keep more trains in reserve.

“The engine problems have all been solved,” she said.

SMART has four additional engine cars on order.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 707-521-5336 or Twitter @deadlinederek.

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