Could the Golden Gate Bridge have accommodated trains?

I’ve always considered it unfortunate that the Golden Gate Bridge, built in 1936, can’t handle railroad traffic. Though understandable, this fact has had far-reaching effects on rail transport in California. Today you can’t take an intercity train into San Francisco, but must travel to Emeryville or Oakland, and then make your way into the City by mass transit or taxi. True, in the case of Oakland you can use BART to get across the bay, but the fact that you have to change trains at all is a deal breaker for many people, who are adverse to the idea of dragging their luggage on a mass transit train which isn’t very well equipped to handle it. Between Los Angeles and San Francisco, there’s no direct rail connection at all; Amtrak sells tickets but a substantial part of the trip must be made by bus. Meanwhile, the coastal railroad only goes about as far north as Pismo Beach, IIRC. I’ve long believed that if the GGB could have accommodated rail traffic, better rail transit between L.A. and S.F. would have been kept alive, and today would be a great alternative to the hassle of airline travel.

Would it have been conceivably possible to make the GGB strong enough for trains? Do any suspension bridges allow rail traffic, or are heavy duty trains just too heavy?

The Bay Bridge, which contains suspension spans, had rail traffic until 1958.

I’m a bit confused – why would lack of rail transport over the GGB affect the presence or absence of railway access between LA and SF? My knowledge of the California geography is an East Coaster’s, but LA is south of SF and the GGB leads north of SF. Seems like the real issue would be that the coast is mountainous and it’s just easier to run train lines down the central valley.

Amtrak’s Coast Starlight is rail-only all the way from LA to Seattle (with some spectacular scenery, including coast-huggung between Oxnard and Santa Maria. Using this route (rather than the inland San Joaquin route), the only “bus” portion of LA-SF is the last ten miles from Emeryville in the East Bay to San Francisco.

If youy want to do LA-SF rail-only, get off the Coast Starlight in San Jose, and take Caltrain for the last ~50 miles to SF (if you’re timing’s good, you may even save some time using this strategy).

Southern Pacific ran the Coast Daylight (“The Most Beautiful Train in the World”) from 1937 to 1971, using the coastal route to San Jose and then the Peninsula line to SF, i.e. the same route as the current Coast Starlight/Caltrain combination.

Chronologically, the great days of railroad-building in the Western US were over by the time the Bay Bridge and GGB were built. As Finagle says, you don’t need rail on the GGB to go rail-only between LA and SF, and north of SF the coast is mountainous and does not have much population or heavy industry. Although the populations of Marin and Sonoma counties have soared in the last few decades, that was too late for rail tracks to be seriously considered for the GGB. The North Coast Railroad used to run from Sausalito to Eureka via Santa Rosa (you can see Joseph Cotten take it in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, and Clint Eastwood stand on a trestle in Dirty Harry), but it is currently disused (and partly torn-up) between Sausalito and Novato. There are plans to re-open the line for commuter trains between the Larkspur Ferry terminal (in Marin County) and northern Sonoma County. However, even in its heyday, the density of traffic on this line would never have justified adding tracks to the GGB, which was already pushing the limits of engineering at the time.

Addressing another point of the OP, all Amtrak trains in the East Bay have connecting buses (included in the ticket price) to various points in downtown San Francisco, and they’re well set up for carrying luggage. There’s really no schlepping involved. Before the Bay Bridge was built, passengers from points East and North simply took a ferry from the Oakland Mole to SF.

There’s the rub. Before BART was begun, two counties dropped out of the plan. San Jose County decided that the SPRR, which ran trains from San Jose City to the SF depot at 3rd and Townsend, was adequate–and not long afterward the SPRR decided they wanted to drop the commute business.
As for Marin County, an engineering survey concluded that the Golden Gate Bridge could not support another level. (I have driven on that bridge and the idea of laying tracks on it makes no sense, given (1) the traffic in its current state and 2) the fact that at different times of day the lanes in the center carry traffic in different directions. How would you accommodate tracks with that setup?)

No, there’s no problem with trains on suspension bridges. Just one example. (Of course, whether an existing bridge could cope with heavy rail traffic is a different matter.)

Nitpick: Santa Clara County (whose county seat is San Jose – there’s no San Jose County) dropped out at very early planning stages, so was never part of the BART district. San Mateo County, which includes most of the cities between San Jose and San Francisco, was initially part of BART, but pulled out. It had to buy its way back into BART’s favor to get the line built out to SFO (the airport), but is now hurting from the operating costs that BART has saddled it with. Meanwhile, the proposed BART San Jose extension – if it ever gets built – would bring Santa Clara County back into the BART fold. See the Wikipedia page here (the “Origins and planning” section), and also the relevant San Francisco Cityscape article for full details.

Although Southern Pacific dropped the Peninsula commute service, it was picked up by Caltrans and rebranded as Caltrain. There are nearly 100 trains every weekday, and the new “Baby Bullets” run San Jose - San Francisco (~50 miles) in under an hour. [I’m a frequent Caltrain rider and consider it to be very well-run and cost-effective.]

To pull this semi-hijack back to relevancy with the OP (since discussion of BART has little to do with LA-SF service), the anticipated future electrification of the Caltrain line – if BART projects don’t suck up all the funds – is a necessary component of the California High-Speed Rail Project, which envisions downtown-to-downtown LA-SF rail service in under 2.5 hours, i.e. competitive with air travel.

Because rail systems work synergistically. The longer a rail line is, the more stations it has, the more distinct possible journeys it can provide. A greater number of possible distinct journeys=a greater potential market of passengers.

If you had a continuous line from L.A. all the way up through S.F. and right on up into Marin and points north, you’d have been able to accommodate many more potential customers who wanted to make trips that today are so impractical as to be neary impossible. Suppose someone wanted to go by train from San Luis Obispo to Humboldt? They couldn’t do it today. The engineering problems of an inland line may be easier to surmount, but most people in California live along the coast.

yabob, were the trains on the OBB just light-rail streetcar like trains, or were they full fledged intercity trains?

And another and one more.

Not all suspension bridges are engineered to carry rail traffic, though. The load patterns are very different from car traffic.

North of San Francisco, most people don’t live along the coast. Here is a map of population distribution. The 2000 census populations of the five coastal counties between San Francisco and the Oregon border are:
li[/li][li]Del Norte 27,507[/li][li]Humboldt 126,518[/li][li]Mendocino 86,265[/li][li]Sonoma 458,614[/li][li]Marin 247,289[/li][li](San Francisco)[/li][/ul]
That’s fewer than 1 million people, spread over ~300 miles of potential trackage, over 70% of whom are in Marin and Sonoma (representing the southernmost ~100 miles of the distance between SF and Oregon). Thus, there are plans to run commuter trains between Larkspur in Marin (Ferry terminal for SF) and Cloverdale in Sonoma, but not further north. Even then, this would only involve a few trains per day, nowhere near enough to justify modifications to the GGB.

In an ideal world, there would be rail projects funded all over the US. However, for the foreseeable future, any dollar spent adding trains to the GGB is a dollar that would be better spent elsewhere (e.g. Caltrain electrification and extension to the Transbay Terminal, High-Speed Rail between California’s population centers, or any other of the worthy projects outlined here).

The tracks on the Bay Bridge belonged to the Key System, which covered the Oakland/Berkeley area with trains looking like this. Between 1939 and 1941, Sacramento Northern interurbans also ran over the bridge. Although “inter-city” in a literal sense, none of these trains could be considered “heavy rail” as needed for true long-distance travel.

In addition to the others mentioned upthread, here are two more:
[li]The Tsing Ma Bridge (longer than the GGB) between the islands of Tsing Yi and Ma Wan in Hong Kong.[/li][li]The 25 de Abril Bridge connecting Lisbon, Portugal, with points south. This is particularly relevant to the OP because, although the bridge was opened in 1966, it was retrofitted with rail tracks in 1996-1999. It’s also structurally similar to the GGB, and built in an earthquake zone. The retrofit process is described here.[/li][/ul]

As already pointed out, there is continuous track from L.A. to S.F. And it doesn’t run through the valley, it goes along the coast (more or less). The San Joaquin line terminates in Bakersfield.

In addition to having more population than the North Coast, the Sacramento Valley is also growing faster - Tehama and Yuba county have growth rates close to 10%, Butte county around 5%, while Humboldt is at 1.5%.

Though if you really want to, Amtrak does offer service from SLO to Arcata. Granted it’s all bus from the Bay Area to Humboldt, and Amtrak buses are a terrible way to travel more than 100 miles, but they offer it — I just don’t think there’s enough people that really need it.

Slight hijack–are Amtrak buses worse than Greyhound, or about the same?

I stand corrected–San Mateo County. :o (The last time I was in the Bay Area, the southern terminus of the BART line going through SF was in Daly City, the one and only station in San Mateo County). SFO, of course, is a considerable distance from San Francisco proper.

I’ve never properly been on long-distance Greyhound bus (that is, I’ve only ridden chartered buses from Greyhound). My limited experience was that Amtrak had a nicer bus, but felt more cramped.

Hwaaaaay better.

However, we do now know that you can take an intercity train into SF, right?