Tickets are sold in the quaint old train station by a volunteer in vintage railroad attire. Requested donations are $10 general; $8 seniors 62 and older; $5 ages 3-12. When the train pulled in from Niles it was immediately surrounded by folks with cameras ornscrambling to board for an outside seat.
The train travels 13 miles round trip between Sunol and Niles meandering near and sometimes crossing Highway 84. It leaves Sunol four times on Sundays -- 10:15 a.m., 12:01 p.m., 1:45 p.m. and 3:15 p.m. -- a ride that takes about 40 minutes. The train is pulled by a diesel engine to Niles along the old Southern Pacific tracks then chugs back with a steam engine, although there is no return trip for the last train. In Niles an old-time bus is available to shuttle folks between downtown and the station.
The train isn't long. It has old passenger cars and open air cars, converted for passenger use from old flatcars. One enclosed coach has restrooms, a snack bar and free wine tastings from local vineyards.
A caboose is available for rent, as is the entire train. Check out the Niles Canyon Railway website for more information: www.ncry.org. The Train of Lights is a favorite in December as it winds through the canyon at night decked out in a colorful display of holiday lights with Santa onboard; tickets sell out quickly when they go on sale in October.
The clunky old cars may not give as smooth a ride as BART or Amtrak, but they take riders back in time -- and through beautiful scenery. In the spring, the hillside is lush as the route follows the Alameda Creek, which flows like a river after generous rainfalls.
The ride isn't so smooth, explained railroad aficionado Jess Steven Hughes, who was visiting from the state of Washington, because the converted flatcar wasn't made for comfort.
"They were made for freight," Hughes said. "Plus these are old tracks. This track is from 1905-10."
Parts of the track were replaced after it was damaged during the 1906 earthquake, he said, plus heavier track was laid when the trains themselves got heavier.
The transcontinental railway, completed in 1869, originally completed its journey to the San Francisco Bay via this stretch until Southern Pacific upgraded its line through Benicia and Martinez and the main line switched to the shorter route in 1879.
Many of the riders on the Niles Canyon Railway seemed to be train enthusiasts as they traded stories of riding the rails and wielded cameras before, during and after the ride. The excursion was also popular with families of small children, who were helped up the steep boarding steps by the volunteers decked out in traditional train garb.
The railway is an entirely volunteer endeavor, run by members of the Pacific Locomotive Association, which was begun in 1961. The association began rebuilding the rail line in 1987 and its volunteers worked for more than a year on the section between Sunol and Brightside maintenance facility, about halfway to Niles.
"On May 21, 1988, almost 122 years after the first Western Pacific excursion, the Pacific Locomotive Association brought railroad passenger operations back to life in Niles Canyon," states the website.
For a traditional, old-fashioned train experience or just a fun outing through the beautiful canyon, gather your family and friends together and say, "All aboard!"
More train adventures
Go to Martinez to catch Amtrak's Capitol Corridor train to Sacramento for the day; one-way fare is $17. Sacramento's station is next to its historic district, Old Sacramento, a collection of restaurants, shops and the California State Railroad Museum, which has 21 lavishly restored locomotives and cars, some dating back to 1862. The museum also has a full-scale diorama of an 1860s construction site high in the Sierra Nevada as well as a bridge elevated 24 feet above the museum floor.
The museum is also the starting point for the weekend Sacramento Southern Railroad, a 40-minute, six-mile roundtrip ride in vintage passenger coaches and converted freight cars along the levees of the Sacramento River on a steam locomotive. Tickets are $10 adults, $5 youths (ages 6-17), ages 5 and under ride free. Call (916) 445-6645.