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I can never decide which is sadder: the Obama Administration’s token 12-15 billion dollars for national railways, or, the greenblogger, transportblogger, and mainstream media’s belief we’re pursuing a new rail policy. The United States has for years been piled high with unfunded rail projects, just waiting for a green light. But the 12-15 billion allocated so far will, at best, provide nothing more than seed money for mega projects like high-speed rail while neglecting the myriad smaller projects across the country. In the same way the Obama Administration has no energy policy, they have no transport policy.

Turning the clock back a few years, however, it’s worth recalling that John Stilgoe’s Train Time was not only well received among his graduate students at Harvard, but was also popular among hedge funds and private equity investors looking to invest in rail. There were reports that investors were scurrying to locate historic rail maps across America, and also Rights of Way deeds, to better quantify emerging opportunities. To this point, I found the first of some historic railway maps for the Bay Area this week, at Calisphere. Here is a section of the 1900 Mill Valley and Mt Tamalpais Railway Co Map and Schedule:

I believe the public would be surprised to learn that many railroad companies, and their descendant companies, have retained Rights of Way along the myriad disused rail beds that criss-cross the nation. (That bike path you’ve ridden over the past ten years may, in fact, not be owned by your town. It might be leased for 1.00 dollar a year from a railroad company). While I can’t know the current legal status of all the current and former railbeds of the Bay Area, it’s worth noting that the map above probably still lines up well with existing (and likely retained) Rights of Way. For a wider view, here is a 1900 Southern Railway Map of California–again with just the Bay Area detail:

I’ve identified the Bay Area as one of the regions in North America best positioned for a slow-to-no growth world, in which energy inputs are never cheap again, and the problem of transportation–actually, conveyance in general–becomes a central concern to economies. The Bay Area’s waterways are a natural gift and it’s not for nothing San Francisco was the dominant West Coast city 100 years ago, in 1910. It’s miles of waterfront within the bay itself is a powerful resource, especially when combined with the Carquinez Straight’s access to agricultural land. As you can see from the maps also, there is alot of historic rail in the region–a great deal of which is also near the water.

While it may take a while, eventually the country will bet once again on the railroads (did Warren Buffet read Stilgoe’s Train Time?). The old line that comes down through Petaluma to San Rafael (seen on the first map) is a good example of the current revival in two ways. First, the formation of the new Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) shows strong community support for the project, and they’ve been successful in winning measures through balloting. Second, the difficulty that SMART has now run into is largely financial, and is pretty much courtesy of the recession. These twin influences, public interest in rail transport as oil prices resume their advance, and financial pressures, will likely define rail buildout in the years ahead. But regions rich in an existing rail footprint–especially near water–will have fewer hurdles to surmount.

Photos: Details of Railway Maps, found in the Maps–>Railroads section of Calisphere.
Source: San Francisco: Marshaling Water and Historic Railway Lines for Future Transport