Eighteen miles of rails carry wine lovers up and down the Napa Valley each day. Soon, a handful of commuters could join those tourists – in what could be a tiny foretaste of passenger rail service’s return to the wine country after a decades-long absence.
Directors of the Napa Valley Wine Train on Wednesday outlined a pilot program that would add one or more commuter-style cars to the company’s normal schedule of fine-dining and winery-hopping routes between Napa and St. Helena.
The commuting service would attach 70 to 80 passengers per railcar, all employees of tourism-related businesses, to a locomotive for a single round trip each weekday north from Napa to jobs in St. Helena and back again, according to Scott Goldie, a principal in the Wine Train’s ownership.
Owners hope to put one commuter car on the rails sometime this year, he announced at the Napa County Library during a forum on expanding passenger train service in the North Bay.
The project, which Goldie detailed during the forum organized by the Train Riders Association of California, is expected to travel between the two cities in about 40 minutes. Top speed would be about 25 mph, limited mainly by ungated street crossings along the Wine Train’s rural northern sections.
Wine Train officials started outlining a possible commuting service in mid-2016 – the year after Noble House Hotels & Resorts Ltd. and Brooks Street, a real estate investment firm, bought the line from the DeDomenico family – and have contacted five St. Helena businesses for possible partnerships, said Goldie.
Five former Southern Pacific passenger train cars the Wine Train purchased in 2016 are in storage, and can be refurbished for the commuting pilot at a cost of about $250,000 per car. Wineries and restaurants taking part in the program would lease seats for at least six months.
Though far removed from the everyday working world, the Wine Train’s existing Legacy service to Upvalley wineries provides a glimpse into how many car trips a vital railroad can replace, according to Tom Davies, president of V. Sattui Winery, one of the St. Helena businesses in talks with the rail company.
“Every time I see the Legacy go up the valley they stop here every day with 20 or 30 people, and that takes 15 cars off the road that day,” said Davies, whose tasting room is directly east of both Highway 29 and the Wine Train line.
“It’s easy for locals to point the finger at visitors as the culprit, but traffic studies show barely 20 percent of our traffic is due to guests. So we have to look at ourselves and say, ‘Wait a minute, it’s us, we’re part of the problem,’ and look at ways to minimize car trips in the valley,” Davies said.
Between 50 and 80 people work at V. Sattui’s winery depending on the season, and more than half of them commute from the Napa area, said Davies.
Caltrans has estimated daily traffic counts on Highway 29, the valley’s transportation spine, range from 25,000 vehicles to as many as 68,000 on its four-lane freeway stretch through Napa.
In the early 20th-century heyday of local passenger rail, the San Francisco and Napa Valley Electric Railroad linked the county’s main towns as far as Calistoga, where the line was completed in 1912, according to the Napa County Historical Society. The company’s passenger service was discontinued in 1937.