San Joaquin (Amtrak) ridership continues to soar – is HSR to blame?

Amtrak has finally caught up with their monthly status reports, and their August and September numbers are now available.

What really popped out from these reports was the incredibly impressive numbers from the San Joaquin route, which services California’s Central Valley and is where the first phase of High Speed Rail (HSR) is set to be constructed. To HSR detractors, this section of the state is known as “nowhere”, a land of farms and vast distances, where transit is simply unfeasible.

The latest numbers don’t break the record set in July, because that is typically the route’s best month, but 2011 did feature the highest August and September on record….and by a large amount.

How does two months of over 18% year on year growth sound?

That’s even more impressive when you consider the following:

 1)     Not a honeymoon. This route has been offered by Amtrak since 1974.
 2)     No increase in service or frequency. The route has offered 6 trains a day (each way) since 2002 and besides the most minor of adjustments, the same schedule.
 3)     No major ad campaign. Just business as usual
 4)     No economic boon. Quite the opposite, unemployment in the central valley continues to hold steady north of 16%, almost twice the national average.
 5)     No price drop. On the contrary, as the trains fill, the higher price buckets are seen more often.
 6)     2010 was better than 2009….which was better than 2008. This isn’t an anomaly, or a percent increase hiding low numbers (ie, this is not a case where ridership doubled because 2 more people rode).

So what’s going on? What on earth has caused an 18% surge in ridership?

Since we can put away all those standard explanations, like more service, better prices, or more jobs, that leaves us to dig for reasons that simply aren’t as obvious.

And I’d argue that all the talk of High Speed Rail, which won’t even open until 2020, is the reason.

You see, HSR has gotten a LOT of press this year. You’d be hard-pressed to find a week in which there wasn’t at least one meaty article in the newspaper concerning rail. Be it news about costs, alignments, political grandstanding and so forth, there’s always something to report on, and the people are eager to read about it.

And while not every article does it, I’d say the majority do mention the fact that Amtrak currently offers service in the valley, on an alignment that HSR will seek to use.

In other words, the San Joaquin has gotten a whole lot of indirect advertisements with all these articles talking about rail. And as any marketing person knows, constant impressions of your product leads to increased awareness. And if you offer an attractive product, increased awareness means sales.

In this case, an 18% increase in sales.

I’d also like to note that the other Amtrak line to experience good amounts of growth recently has been the Downeaster, linking Boston to its former colony of Maine. Again, the only real change has been lots of press about an upcoming expansion.

Would anyone else would like to propose a reasonable explanation?

Onto the numbers then.

Percent change over same month in 2010
San Joaquin = 18.7%
Capitol Corridor = 10.3%
Pacific Surfliner = 5.3%

San Joaquin = 19.2%
Capitol Corridor = 10.7%
Pacific Surfliner = 5.1%

And here is that in awkward chart format.

San Joaquin August 2009, 2010, and 2011

San Joaquin September 2009, 2010, and 2011

The Capitol Corridor has also seen big gains. Note that the percentage increase is small, but the total number of passengers added is very similar.

Capitol Corridor August 2009, 2010, and 2011

Capitol Corridor September 2009, 2010, and 2011

A year (and two months) in review. Clear seasonal variance is visible.

And how these line stack up against the rest of the country.



2 Replies to “San Joaquin (Amtrak) ridership continues to soar – is HSR to blame?”

  1. Note that San Joaquin Amtrak travel times are comparable to legal driving times, if not faster. If you are traveling alone, Amtrak is unquestionably cheaper. The size of valley cities and integration of metro economies makes Amtrak growth a good bet, especially with traffic on 99 set to increase and the occasional ground fog.

  2. Cheaper for those traveling alone, yes, and they frequently offer deals on groups (ie, bring a buddy for free). Not necessarily faster. As you said, it's faster than the legal speed limit (which is 70mph) but most drive at 80ish, which beats Amtraks 79 because Amtrak makes a few stops. But yes, comparable.

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