Napa Valley Wine Train’s new owners are entertaining an idea that advocates say could at least make a dent in Highway 29 rush hour traffic: starting commuter rail service.
The Wine Train takes people for a leisurely, fine-dining experience as they travel along 18 miles of track connecting Napa and St. Helena. It offers a three-hour movable feast, not commuter trips for upvalley winery and hotel workers.
But Scott Goldie said Wine Train ownership is open to the commuter train concept. Goldie owns Brooks Street, a California company that co-owns the Wine Train with Noble House Hotels & Resorts, Ltd. The companies bought the Wine Train in 2015.
“We’re trying to explore how it could work, what kinds of cars we would need, what kind of capabilities those cars would have to have in terms of Wi-Fi,” Goldie said last week.
A commuter train would be designed to take off the road at least some of the 25,000 to 68,000 vehicles that travel various sections of Highway 29 each day. The higher estimate from the state Department of Transportation is for the highway stretch within the city of Napa.
Among the topics yet to be studied is how many workers would be interested in such a service and at what ticket price. Another issue is whether workers would need a shuttle from the Wine Train terminus in St. Helena to their jobs.
“We’re very intrigued by the concept … as we reach out to businesses, we would be talking with the cities as well, making sure everyone likes the idea,” Goldie said.
Rex Stults of Napa Valley Vintners said he’s seen Highway 29 traffic grow worse over 20 years. He can envision making the trip from his Napa home to his St. Helena job by train.
“If it was somewhat affordable, convenient and didn’t take a lot longer than it does to drive, I would be all in,” Stults said. “If could sit there and do email on my iPad or look at the fantasy baseball website or have a cup of coffee instead of being stuck in traffic, I’d be very interested.”
Vintner Chuck McMinn said he and local developer Keith Rogal looked at buying the Wine Train a few years ago. They wanted to move commuters and tourists by rail.
“That is really the only way we’re going to increase commute capacity in the valley,” McMinn said. “We’re not going to build a bigger Highway 29.”
McMinn owns Vineyard 29 along Highway 29 north of St. Helena. He said most of his 20 employees live in the city of Napa or to the south. He believes they would take a commuter train.
“They all complain about how much worse the traffic is getting,” McMinn said.
Napa County Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza said no single thing will solve Napa County’s traffic problems, but that the Wine Train can be a component. He has talked to the Wine Train owners about the commuter rail idea.
“I definitely think it would be worthwhile because of the positive impact it would have, providing a different mode of transportation, getting people off the road, reducing greenhouse gases,” Pedroza said.
One question is whether the service would require some sort of subsidy, either from employers or government. Most mass transit, from buses such as VINE to train service such as the Capitol Corridor between Sacramento and San Jose, have a subsidy.
“We have to keep an open mind to the mechanism for it to work financially,” Pedroza said, though he also mentioned treading lightly when using taxpayers’ money.
A failed attempt to create an employee bus service connecting Calistoga and Santa Rosa this year was funded by the Calistoga Chamber of Commerce. That service ended after two months because of minimal ridership.
A 2003 rail study looked at a much grander vision than Napa-to-St. Helena commuter service on Wine Train-owned tracks. It proposed having rail passenger service from Vallejo ferry terminal to St. Helena.
Startup costs would be $138.6 million and annual operating costs $6.9 million. Based on comparable fares for public transit systems, the service would need an annual subsidy of $5.9 million, said the study done for the Napa Valley Transportation Authority and Solano Transportation Authority.
The Napa Valley Transportation Authority in 2015 released its Vision 2040 countywide transportation study. That report said a Vallejo-to-St. Helena commuter train would significantly reduce traffic congestion and the idea has potential.
Projected costs so far have helped stymie that ambitious Vallejo-to-St. Helena rail proposal. Whether a far more modest commuter service between Napa and St. Helena using the Wine Train makes financial sense could become clearer in coming months.
The idea for Wine Train commuter service is mentioned in draft documents for the county’s evolving, greenhouse gas-cutting Climate Action Plan. Sixty-three percent of the county’s workers live in the county and 12 percent work in the unincorporated county, it said.
“Commuter service should operate at normal commute hours and with 15 minutes headways to be effective,” it said.
Starting commuter service on the Wine Train tracks would be a return to the past. Sam Brannan founded Napa Valley Railroad in 1864 to take tourists to his resorts in the town of Calistoga.
But the popularity of cars killed passenger train service in the Napa Valley by the 1930s. The Napa Valley Wine Train began operating in 1989 along railroad tracks that previous owner Southern Pacific wanted to abandon.