Old BART Cars to Find New Home
They’ll be housed at the Western Railway Museum, a gem of a museum where they will continue to be rideable.
Photo courtesy Western Railway Museum
Sometime in the near future BART will have a presence in Rio Vista Junction, Solano County, just a few miles south and east of Suisun City. No, it will not be a new extension into what is pretty much farm country for the now 47-year-old system, whose next stop will actually be San Jose.
But have you ever wondered where BART’s elderly transit cars might go to rest in their retirement years after logging billions of miles of wear and tear since their 1972 inaugural run?
Well, here’s the thing: As more and more of the transit system’s sparkling new ultramodern fleet of cars comes on line, the old fleet will, over time, be decommissioned as it’s being replaced. BART now has 50 of the new cars in operation, making five 10-car trains, with more waiting in the wings. So progress is perking along, portending the exchange possibly sooner than later. Three of the original transit cars, when eventually taken out of service, will be transported to their new home at one of the Bay Area region’s best kept secrets — the Western Railway Museum, a countryside gem, roughly an hour’s drive from Oakland.
It will get two BART “A” sloped-nose cars, and one “B” or middle train car. There the venerable transit cars will move into Bay Area history and be on display, the interiors filled with historical mementos for current and new generations to see. These cars were once considered straight out of Flash Gordon. They were significant in their design, depicted by early renderings published in local newspapers in the late 1950s and early 1960s as the future. Moreover, they helped persuade voters of the three original BART counties — Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco — in November 1962, to approve the proposed new regional space-age system.
Also, these once sleek symbols of a new kind of postwar rail rapid transit will join their ancestors, in stark contrast to 100 colorful historic streetcars, locomotives, and trains currently housed at the museum, representatives of a romantic bygone era.
“These old timers were the glue that connected several communities in a golden age of interurban public transport, particularly during the first half of the 20th century,” said former museum general manager John Holt. He said that one of the streetcars in the museum’s fleet was in operation as far back as 1848. “And others have incredible stories to tell if they could talk.”
One such streetcar at the museum has a remarkably adventurous history, almost like the little train that could. It began its journey in 1926 in Cleveland, Ohio. As car number 262, and painted yellow, it served as an interstate carrier, along the route between Jeffersonville and Louisville, and New Albany in southern Indiana and northern Kentucky along the Ohio river. In 1936 it became car number 202, repainted orange and moved to Terra Haute as part of the Indiana Railroad. It went out of service for a few years and in 1940 was purchased, along with five of its sister cars by the Portland Traction Company, repainted again, this time blue and creamy yellow and given the number 4001. It operated in Oregon until it was retired in 1958.
As the story was told to a group of visitors outside the train barn by train conductor and tour guide, John Krauskopf, Laura Timothy, one of the visitors to the museum, commented that it could be a character out of a Disney movie.
“Can it still operate?” she asked.
“Absolutely! In fact, follow me,” Krauskopf said.
Several visitors along with this reporter then entered the barn and boarded car 4001 and listened to conductor Ted Moreland walking up and down the aisle adding some color to the car’s incredible history, punching our tickets and explaining railroad procedures. Then with everybody seated, motorman Joseph Cliscagne, a weekend volunteer, hit the controls and Car 4001 moved out of the barn, as if the years had not passed, for a 5-mile trip along the countryside following the old Sacramento Northern Railroad right of way. Some of the sites along the way include the Shiloh Church, originally built in 1870 out in the middle of a pasture as a place for local farmers to attend services, and the Montezuma Slough. Mount Diablo rising majestically in the distance.
The plan for the BART cars calls for laying the required wide-gage tracks to accommodate them, building a platform inside a specially designed canopy, or building, to house them and provide easy access for the visiting public. The interior of the cars will also include photos of the early construction years and memorabilia, much like from the old Key System, which stopped operating in 1957 after hitting its peak during World War II. Years earlier, the infrastructure, including tracks and transit cars, were purchased by an entity known as National City Lines. That company’s aim was to dismantled the entire Key System and sell the transit cars, shipping many of them off to South America.
As a sidebar of public interest, this had turned out to be a scheme, known as “The Great American Streetcar Scandal.” National City Lines was revealed to be a front organization for General Motors, Firestone Tires, and Standard Oil Company of California to make way for replacing rail systems with buses and automobiles. In 1949 the companies were indicted and found guilty of an anti-trust conspiracy to monopolize the interstate market for the sale of their products and fined $5,000, according to public records. A movie of this legendary plot was depicted in the 1988 Disney movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
BART and AC Transit pretty much replaced the Key System, which was a series of interurban streetcar lines that operated between Hayward in the south, Alameda, Oakland, and north through Berkeley, and crossed the bay on a second deck of the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge. It was originally started in 1903 by Francis Marion “Borax” Smith to serve his growing East Shore real estate empire, including the Claremont Hotel. Luckily, some of the Key System streetcars ultimately found their way to the Western Rail Way Museum.
Operated by the Bay Area Electric Railroad Association, the Western Railway Museum is a nonprofit attraction whose mission is to preserve an important part of California history, its early modes of rail transportation and create an educational environment.
It was founded in 1946 by a dedicated group of rail transit aficionados, holding the first meeting at the Shattuck Hotel in Berkeley on Dec. 13, 1946. The museum site is 25 acres. It has several structures, including an 11,000-square-foot visitor center, and its 35,000-square foot car barn, which also houses some famous red Tijuana Trolley cars.
The museum is on Highway 12 about 15 miles from the turnoff at Interstate 80, along the once mainline of the Sacramento Northern Railroad, which at one time ran through Montclair, Oakland, all the way to Chico. The museum is a marvel of vintage inter-urban rail cars. Venerable train and or streetcar rides are scheduled for trips four times a day beginning at 11 a.m. The trip is usually about five miles from the museum starting point out into the bucolic countryside, and as mentioned, along the old Sacramento Northern right of way and return. It has the feeling of the old west, and if you close your eyes, you can easily imagine horseman off in the distance driving cattle eastward.
In addition to the locomotive, train, and streetcar rides, the large visitor center is filled with very early railroad machinery on display and other memorabilia from an earlier age, a gift shop and an extensive library with over 3,200 books, plus photos, drawings, and ancient posters. There is also a picnic area and a small café which is good for snacks, hot dogs, hamburgers, coffee, and soft drinks.
On any given weekend, you can find families touring the facilities, riding a train or streetcar, or lounging on the park-like grounds enjoying a sunny day. Even though there is not a top-of-mind public awareness of the Western Rail Museum, it managers to attract around 22,000 visitors annually.
“People find out about this place, mostly through word of mouth,” Holt said. “And when people show up here who’ve never been here before, well, it’s kind of a revelation, a discovery.”
Staffed mostly by volunteers who donate a great deal of their time to making sure everything works, and that the rolling stock, shops, and facilities are well maintained, the museum is like a little self-contained kingdom all its own.
“We’re very proud of what we’ve accomplished here,” Holt said. “It’s a unique place where folks of all ages can enjoy a sense of yesteryear as they tour around the grounds.”
During the winter and spring months, the rail museum is only open on weekends from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. But during the summer months from July 13 through Aug. 10, it is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Among the many events the museum holds during the year is the Pumpkin Patch Festival in October. This event, which includes hayrides and a special train to take folks to a pumpkin patch about 3 miles out to Gum Grove ranch site from the museum. There, attendees can pick out and purchase pumpkins of their choice, plus there’s food and beverages and a generally festive atmosphere. This event is sponsored by the local Rotary Club and has become a favorite fall attraction.
For individuals or family’s looking for something fun and different, the Western Rail Museum offers a great overall experience. For information on events, schedules and admission costs, go to WRM.org or call 707-374-2078.
Michael C. Healy was the longtime media affairs and marketing guru for BART until he retired in 2004. He writes about the transit agency in his 2016 book, BART: The Dramatic History of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System.