That was fast. Last April, Amtrak California decided to try something new – an early morning train from Fresno to Sacramento, timed to arrive for the start of the business day. The return train was scheduled for the early evening. The idea was to make it possible for people in the Central Valley to use Amtrak to attend a meeting or conference in the capital. However, this was not an expansion of service. Instead, cities south of Fresno lost one of their trains. The reasoning being that no one was going to board a train in Bakersfield at 3am. I talked about this change in service in November of 2017.
The Riverside County Transportation Commission (RCTC) has been studying passenger service in a 141 mile rail corridor between Los Angeles Union Station and Indio, CA since 1991.
One such proposal I’ve seen a lot about involves a big increase in rail service in the northern part of the San Joaquin Valley including shifting the Amtrak San Joaquin over to a completely separate rail line into Sacramento, adding a bunch of stations, and increasing service. Cool stuff, but it’ll never happen, right?
Well, earlier this year, those plans were granted $500 million. Five hundred million! That’s real money to turn the plan into an actual operating rail line, so it’s time to take a very serious look at what is actually going to happen. This money is thanks to SB1, a law that is estimated to provide $52 billion over the next decade to transportation projects. Keep that in mind when you vote in November.
The state Thursday put another $500.5 million into expanding passenger rail connecting the Bay Area with Modesto and other inland cities.
Some of the money will go to extending the Altamont Corridor Expresss, which runs between Stockton and San Jose by way of Livermore and Fremont. It could reach Ceres by 2023 and Merced by 2027 with this funding on top of $400 million allotted last year.
The $500 million also will pay for expanding ACE north to Sacramento by 2020, including new stations to be shared with the current Amtrak service in that corridor.
All of the $900 million will come from the gasoline tax increase signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017. The projects aim to provide comfortable rides for people who now drive to the Bay Area, where jobs are plentiful but housing is costly.
Early Morning Express Service
The early morning express, from Fresno to Sacramento launches on May 7. Trains will arrive in Sacramento at 7:41am. I talk about the schedule in this post.
As part of that project, which is aimed at attracting day-trippers and business travelers, parking is being expanded at various stations:
Stockton – 42 new spaces (open now)
Modesto – 108 new spaces (open now)
Turlock – 50 new spaces
Merced- 8 new spaces
Fresno- 60 new spaces
They’re planning on modifying the schedule again later this year to create a second early morning express, but one that runs from Fresno to Oakland. On one hand, this would allow people in Fresno, and north of Fresno, to get to the Bay Area early enough for work. Currently, the earliest train leaves Fresno at 6:18am, and arrives in Oakland at 10:26am. Add another 30 minutes to get into San Francisco.
On the other hand, that screws over people south of Fresno who lose another train. Like the Sacramento express, the train would start in Fresno, so no service to the south.
I think this is a mistake.
8th and 9th Daily Train coming in 2019
Since operations switched to the SJJPA, they have fulfilled long-standing plans to add service. A 6th train was added in 2002, and a 7th in 2016.
The new 8th train will go to Sacramento starting in 2019, providing 4 trains to the Bay, and 4 to Sacramento. Note that all trains offer a free connecting bus in Stockton, so if you’re going to Oakland on a Sacramento train, you are put on a bus to Oakland in Stockton.
The new 8th train, and one of the existing trains, will actually operate on a different train line north of Stockton, due to freight traffic. They will terminate somewhere else in Sacramento, and have different stops. More details on that later this year.
However, the 9th daily is a bit of an odd-ball. It doesn’t really deserve to be called a new train. Essentially, they’re going to replace one of those bus transfers with a shuttle train that only operates between Oakland and Stockton. Because people will still have to transfer, this new train really only makes sense if it’s scheduled at rush hour, where a bus can get stuck in traffic entering or leaving SF.
The long-term plan is to have hourly service between Sacramento and Fresno by 2035.
To keep adding service, the line needs more trains. Currently, the 7 trips are operated by 8 trains. As discussed previously, the state will be getting new trains from Siemens. They will start arriving in 2020 and end in 2023. I’m fairly confident in this timeline. The same factory just closed up production on trains for Florida, so they just have to keep moving, rather than starting from scratch.
However, these trains will be high-floor, and they still don’t how what they will be doing to address this problem.
“However, it is unclear if the current design of the Siemens car will provide a bridge plate long enough to span the distance to the mini -high platform”
For the current fleet, improved wifi is planned for 2019.
No more price buckets
Like airlines, Amtrak operates a system where tickets are priced in fare classes, or price buckets. Essentially, that works as follows:
50 tickets available at $10
Next 50 cost $13
Next 50 cost $16
Next 50 cost $20
That means, as the train fills up, you pay more.
On business-heavy routes, that makes sense. A tourist that can buy 6 months in advance gets to lock in a cheap fare. A businessperson who needs a ticket on the day of, can pay 10x as much, and expense it to their company. Not only does this system make Amtrak more money, but it ensures trains go out almost full.
This works well on the East Coast, where you can pay $49 to go between NYC and DC…or $250 the day of. Those trains are always busy.
But the San Joaquin doesn’t have business traffic. So the end result is that people who can least afford to pay – those who have to pay cash the day of – are hit with the highest fares. Additionally, San Joaquin trains very rarely sell out. Aside from Thanksgiving, there’s always room. Seats going out empty are COSTING Amtrak money. It makes more sense to sell discounted tickets the day of, to fill those seats.
Starting later this year, they will be removing “revenue management” from the San Joaquin. Instead, tickets will be priced like regular public transit: you can always know the cost to travel between two cities.
More Thurway Connections
SJJPA is looking to provide additional connections to buses that will take you to nearby cities from the train station. Existing buses offer service to Yosemite, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and dozens of smaller cities. They’re looking at a new express bus to Redding.
It currently takes the train a little more than 6 hours to go between Bakersfield and Oakland. However, there is a labor rule that means if trips exceed 6 hours, there has to be a crew change. That’s a huge waste of time and money. SJJPA is looking at different options to get under 6 hours.
One option is pretty scummy. It would be to terminate trains in Emeryville instead of Oakland.
Another option would be to skip a stop or two, likely Lodi. Also not good.
A better option would be to increase speeds to 90mph. They’re “measuring the option.”
You can see all these details and more in the new business plan here (PDF).