When Trains Ruled the East Bay
Here's What Happened to the Half-Hour Commute
by Jeff Swenerton
Photography by: John Harder Collection
John Harder Collection
There has always been something about a train. From the romance of the open observation decks on the Coast Starlight to the narrow swath Amtrak cuts through the cool evergreens on its way through the Sierra, the view always changes when you’re aboard. But Bay Area trains haven’t always been just for weekend trips to Reno. Heavy-gauge trains used to be the way people got around the East Bay in the days before AC Transit buses and BART. They were the backbone of our mass transit system for nearly 100 years, with dozens of routes and hundreds of cars, and when they were discontinued in the late 1950s, almost all evidence of their reign was swept away.
It is quaint today to think of large trains running the length of major avenues in the East Bay, but by the mid-1940s the Key System, a privately held commuter railroad with routes from San Leandro to Richmond, had nearly 70 miles of track on dozens of lines, including two that ran across the bay after the Bay Bridge opened in 1936. It is a system that gradually faded out in the late 1950s, the victim of deferred maintenance, an ill-timed workers’ strike and a postwar boom that gave more families the ability to afford their own cars. But the postwar economy also brought a massive influx of people who depended on the trains to get them around while the area was experiencing its first pinch of congestion. In 1940, the region had just under a half million people. Two decades later, the population had more than doubled. A widespread transit system like the Key had served a crucial role, even as new highways and roads were being built.
Rise of the Electric Trains
In the early 1900s, there were several private companies providing interurban rail service, but because the towns outside of Oakland were sparsely populated, and the roads closely spaced, the different companies’ trains ran along parallel streets, often separated only by a single block. And with
their limited service, they competed fiercely for passengers. The longest-running trains were operated by Southern Pacific, whose steam-powered commuter lines had been running since 1863 and whose spur line between Oakland and the Berkeley station at Shattuck Avenue and Center Street significantly reduced the travel time of the existing horse-drawn carriage service, which took 90 minutes to make the trip. But the steam trains were aging and were much slower than the newer electric trains operated by other independent operators. The sleepy communities of Berkeley and Piedmont, remote from the East Bay financial center of Oakland, began to complain about the noise and smoke from Southern Pacific’s coal-driven locomotives.
The opportunity for better, cleaner rail service was recognized by a coalition of wealthy landowners called the Realty Syndicate, which owned vast tracks of Berkeley, Piedmont and Oakland, and sold the land to real estate developers to build houses for the burgeoning population. They knew something that we are still learning today—that areas well-served by transit are worth more and develop faster—and so, in the spirit of good sense coupled with a healthy entrepreneurship, they began buying up the existing smaller train operators, some of whom had been around since the early 1890s, in an effort to consolidate service into a single competitor to Southern Pacific.
The main investor and the man who dreamed up the new railroad was Francis Marion Smith, the Borax King. He made millions running borate-mineral mining operations in the Mojave desert beginning in the early 1870s, and was the founder of 20 Mule Team Borax. He eventually settled in Oakland, building a massive estate, which he called Arbor Villa, across the street from what is now Oakland High School. His optimistically named San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose Railway began service in 1903 and offered not only electric railcars, but also a dedicated ferry terminal for swift connections to San Francisco.
Train to Transbay Ferry
The pier he built, used for connecting rail passengers with its fleet of ferryboats heading for San Francisco’s Ferry Building, snaked 3 miles out into the bay from Oakland, at a point just south of the current Bay Bridge. The enormous pier was built with 2 miles of earth fill and a final mile of wood trestle and was fed by six rail lines that spread out into Oakland and Berkeley. The length of the pier and its location gave it an advantage over Southern Pacific (which had a smaller pier off Adeline Street in West Oakland), and its electric ferries, painted bright orange, were able to make the crossing in 15 minutes—three minutes faster than its rival.
The ferryboats were luxurious, with inlaid tile floors and carved wooden benches; some of the original boats had stained-glass windows on the upper deck. The restaurants onboard served coffee in the mornings, and the food served in the evenings was renowned, especially the corned beef hash and apple pie. There was always a bar on board (except in Prohibition years), along with snack bars, soda fountains, shoeshiners and newsstands. In 1930 a record 60 million ferryboat passengers crossed the bay.
The Bay Bridge
The Bay Bridge would prove to be the beginning of the end for train and ferry service. The bridge was built to carry both cars and trains, with half the lower deck partitioned off to accommodate two rail lines that were shared by the Key System, Southern Pacific and Sacramento Northern. Train service on the bridge began in January 1939, two full years after the bridge opened to cars, but the damage had already been done to transbay ferryboat service. In the first year the bridge was open, there was a drop of more than 3 million ferry passengers. Car ownership was booming, and between 1930 and 1950, the number of cars in the Bay Area more than doubled, to more than a million.
The local trains were suffering too, and in 1948, all the train lines except those with service to San Francisco were mothballed. In 1951, the California State legislature created a 26-member committee to develop a long-range transportation plan for the Bay Area that considered future growth. The Key System, whose ridership had also been suffering for several years, was not to be part of that plan, which focused on providing bus service instead. Because of falling ridership overall since the mid-1940s, the Key trains were getting shabby, and repair costs were mounting. “It was a good system, though a little beat up at the end,” says John Stashik, an El Cerrito resident who maintains an extensive collection of Key System photos. East Bay cities also wanted their streets back, and the fixed train tracks were seen as obstacles to traffic. “Cities wanted to do their own thing,” says Stashik. “And buses were cheaper to operate, with less infrastructure.” The San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Tran
sit Commission finally delivered its plan in 1957, which said, “a regional rapid transit system is essential to prevent total dependence on automobiles and freeways.” That same year, engineering planning began on what would become BART. A year later, the Key System ran its last train, and many of its former routes were picked up by buses in the newly formed AC Transit system.
“It was obvious the Key System was rapidly losing its market share to the private automobile and because of shifts in population to the suburbs,” reports a two-volume history of the system by the late Harre W. Demoro, a former San Francisco Chronicle reporter. Local historian “Key Route Ken” Shattock, who helped produce a documentary on the trains, also places some of the blame on sprawl. “Although the Key System battled the rise of the private automobile and bus manufacturers by running beautiful, streamlined orange-and-silver trains over the Bay Bridge,” he says, “decentralization, encouraged by freeways and bridges, doomed the rail system.”
There was also another player in the demise of the Key System and other city railways nationwide: General Motors. Between 1936 and 1950 General Motors, along with Firestone and Standard Oil of California, bought out electric train systems in nearly 50 cities—including Los Angeles, New York, Detroit and St. Louis—through a holding company called National City Lines, and replaced those trains with buses. In 1946, National City Lines acquired a majority stake in the Key System, which stopped all local service two years later. Oakland and Berkeley’s city councils vehemently opposed the destruction of the Key line trains (though the chamber of commerce endorsed it), but the new owners were adamant that the only way to save the ailing Key System was to convert to buses. In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled against GM in United States v. National City Lines Inc., which said that GM was monopolizing sales of buses and supplies to its subsidiary companies. GM was fined a paltry $5,000, and each of its executives one dollar.
Replaced by BART
Since the trains were taking up space in congested roadways, there was pressure to open the lanes to cars—especially on the Bay Bridge. Mike Pechner, a “railfan” in Fairfield who is the familiar voice doing the weather on radio station KCBS-AM, 740, says, “There was so much pressure from the public and Caltrans to remove the tracks, it forced them to build the [BART] tunnel.” Forty years later, with congestion and delays continuing to rise along commuter corridors, a 1998 plan to resurrect local train service across the Bay Bridge was floated to voters by the mayors of Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland and San Francisco, but it fizzled out.
While the infrastructure-heavy Key System, like other competing train systems, eventually proved too expensive to maintain over time, the absence of its trains is felt every day in the Bay Area. In 2006, congestion overall increased 6 percent, according to a recent study by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. The worst spot is no surprise: “Among the ‘Top 10’ list of congestion hot spots, the morning commute on westbound Interstate 80 from Hercules to the Bay Bridge retained its longtime hold on the top spot in 2006, with an average 12,230 daily vehicle hours of delay.”
Traffic planners know that adding and widening traffic lanes only softens congestion for a moment, until the effects of a growing population overwhelm the gains. With longer commutes, more new residents, and housing developments accessible only by freeway, traffic will only get worse without alternatives to driving. In 1957 you could catch a train by the Alameda County Courthouse every half hour and be
at the Transbay Terminal in San Francisco in 30 minutes, even during commute hours. The same speedy trains served hundreds of stops throughout the East Bay. Today, after a half-century of road building, our only option for getting around quickly is BART. After yet another hour of sitting on Interstate 80, it makes you wish we really could make ’em like we used to.