Rail Out of Town

Right now, the museum consists mainly of dozens of dusty old train hulls scattered across a splay of disused tracks

The Golden Gate Railroad Museum, the eclectic railcar depot stationed at the Hunters Point Shipyard since 1991, has probably come to the end of its line at its current location. At least, that's what Greg Thornton, the museum's vice president of business affairs, thinks. “We are looking for a new home,” says Thornton, who fears the sprawling, dilapidated, and charming train collection is more of a misfit than a match with the city's long-standing plans to turn the former Navy base into a mixed-use development.

For a long time, the plan to revive the shipyard from its toxic, postindustrial slumber seemed a pipe dream, and tenants at the shipyard — many of whom pay negligible rent — barely attended to major redevelopment efforts under way at City Hall. But since the shipyard's 1974 decommissioning, the Navy has sunk some $300 million into environmental remediation, and in November, the city finally took control of so-called Parcel A, an 88-acre piece of the shipyard slated to hold 1,600 units of housing, 300,000 square feet of commercial space, and 34 acres of open space.

Over the next several months, numerous city agencies, committees, and subcommittees and the master developer for the site will gather community input and decide the fate of the property that accommodates the railroad museum. Roughly 100 acres in size, that property, known as Parcel D, will eventually include thousands of square feet of light industrial and research and development space. Plans for the area make mention of establishing “cultural institutions” but do not specifically point to the rail museum as fitting the bill.

Parcel D is expected to transfer from the Navy to the city within two years, says Michael Cohen, the city's director of base reuse and development. That deadline may seem far away, but the decision-making process on what stays on and what goes from Parcel D is actually approaching quickly, Cohen says, and if the museum is to have its case heard, it needs to start working now.

Lennar BVHP, the master developer chosen by the city to resurrect the shipyard and split the proceeds with City Hall, holds major influence over the shipyard's development. Sam Singer, a spokesman for the developer, says that in what is known as a preliminary development concept, Lennar “indicated it would retain the museum.” Immediately, though, he also notes that “there have been no discussions yet between Lennar and the museum.

“But we are happy to talk to them.”

No one has directly told the railroad museum to leave the shipyard, but Thornton says there has been unofficial discussion of the daunting bureaucratic obstacle course that lies ahead, if the museum is to have any chance of staying put.

Among other things, the museum would have to show that it has a financially viable future. After waiting more than a decade for the Navy to clean up the hazmat nightmare at the shipyard, the city wants guaranteed cash cows grazing the land, not charity cases. Or as Cohen, the city's reuse director, puts it: “[The city] wants to make sure the shipyard is an economic engine for the Bayview.”

Right now, the museum consists mainly of dozens of dusty old train hulls scattered across a splay of disused tracks; the locomotive repository looks more like an abandoned scrap-metal yard than a proper museum. Despite the dust and rust, a minuscule operating budget between $7,000 and $14,000 a month, and a recent organizational overhaul that replaced nearly everyone on its board, the museum still chugs along, paying just $1 a month in rent and using scrap-metal sales to fund a goodly chunk of its budget.

Volunteer docents give tours of retired passenger, dining, and sleeper cars every weekend to the few visitors who actually find their way to the museum. Meanwhile, the organization's Run-A-Locomotive program teaches anyone who's game how to engineer a train down a nearby three-mile stretch of track that hooks up to Caltrain's main line.

In two old warehouses, a handful of volunteers diligently works every weekend to restore and repair broken-down engines, renovate decaying passenger cars, and ensure that equipment complies with Federal Transit Administration regulations. Awaiting restoration are rusty gems such as a Southern Pacific “Cascade Club,” a combination lounge and dining car that Thornton says cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

“Everything is a disaster, but it can all be salvaged,” Thornton says.

Indeed, as Thornton plans for a possible move from the shipyard, he continues to dream. In the dream, the museum would gain an official headquarters building; its trains would be renovated to offer murder-mystery theater, Halloween parties, and trips to the Bay Meadows racetrack. “We'd like to be the rail center of the west,” Thornton says.

It's a compelling dream that train lovers can make real — as soon as they've raised the $150 million it's estimated to cost. (Tiffany Maleshefski)

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