The Brightline rail line in Florida has been an exciting rail project that I surprisingly have never posted about. It is a passenger rail line that operates between Miami and West Palm Beach, with plans to expand to Orlando and Tampa. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, you might know it by its original name – All Aboard Florida – or the company that built it – Florida East Coast Railway. To make it more confusing, they recently received an investment from Richard Branson and will be rebranding as Virgin Trains USA.
What makes the line so interesting is that it is the first real private rail line to operate in the US in decades. Ok, there are some private trains that do leisure trips around a canyon at 20mph, but this rail line is designed for actual travel. Click to read more!
I don’t post much about the Pacific Surfliner train, which runs from San Luis Obispo to San Diego via Los Angeles. In fact, I’ve never been on it! But I did come across the news that they’ve just added a new round-trip to fill an odd gap in their schedule. The new train will start October 14.
Additional Trip Options: We’ve added an extra trip in each direction between Los Angeles and San Diego. New southbound Train 578 will depart Los Angeles at 1:15 p.m., arriving in San Diego at 4:12 p.m. Northbound Train 591 will be renumbered as Train 593, but will keep a similar departure time from San Diego, at 6:40 p.m. New Train 591 will depart San Diego at 5:25 p.m., and arrive in Los Angeles at 8:34 p.m. Both trains fill gaps in the afternoon schedule, providing more travel options. Click to read more!
The Amtrak California network map has a gap. The system is made up of three state-supported rail lines, some long-distance rail lines, and a network of buses to connect cities that do not get rail (thruway buses). Many years ago (at least a decade) you could take an Amtrak bus from the Central Valley to San Jose, via Los Banos and Gilroy. Once that bus line was cancelled, Amtrak riders had to take the train all the way up and around the Bay Area.
Greyhound used to provide buses across to San Jose, but they have continued to cut their routes and no longer do so. BoltBus never provided a route like that, but instead of expanding, they cancelled their entire California network. Flixbus only connects Fresno to LA, and Megabus doesn’t serve the Central Valley at all. Click to read more!
There’s a good reason for this delay. Amtrak has made the ridership numbers a lot less transparent. Instead of reporting the riders per route in an easy table, they are now reporting “year to date.” So to know the ridership in March, you need to know the ridership for the previous month, and subtract the difference. Easy enough…if those reports were on their website. Nope, they only keep the last three online. I’ve done my best to find all the reports using google and the Internet Archive, but unfortunately, I cannot find March to August 2017. On top of that, the numbers are now rounded. They also changed how they report revenue. Click to read more!
I’ve been super busy, so here is a short post with some recent transportation news I didn’t post about:
Starting October 28, Volaris will be adding two flights a week to Leon/Guanajuato airport. This means Fresno will now have service to three cities in Mexico! (Guadalajara and Morelia are the other two). The flight will be on an Airbus A320.
United brought back the Chicago flight and upgraded it from a regional jet to a Boring 737 or Airbus 319. Flights leave Fresno at 11:15pm arriving in Chicago at 5:11am. The return flight leaves Chicago at 7:40pm and arrives in Fresno at 10:10pm. Roundtrip starts at $449, which isn’t great – but that shows demand was there last summer.
It will be a little easier to fly to Japan because JAL is code-sharing with Alaska. That means you can fly Fresno-Seattle-Tokyo on one ticket, so your bags go all the way and you don’t have to check in twice.
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.Click to read more!
I love plans. I have also learned that every plan should be read with a heavy dose of skepticism because many of them don’t go anywhere. California publishes a State Rail Plan every couple of years, and it is always full of exciting ideas, including new rail lines, increased service, and better operations. However, I never post about those plans because most of them just never happen, so why waste time? For example, from the State Rail Plan:
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. Modesto BeeClick to read more!
The Amtrak San Joaquin line, running from Bakersfield to Sacramento and Oakland, is operated by the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority (SJJPA). This local operation means we get a good amount of info on their upcoming plans. Recently, they released a draft of their new business plan. Additionally, they have a public meeting later this week. Here is a summary of what is coming up:
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.”
Amtrak California was supposed to be welcoming a whole new fleet of bi-level trains this year. or last year. Who knows. They were funded way back in 2010 as part of stimulus package. You know, the package intended to create jobs fast with shovel-ready jobs.
The current two level trains and low floor platforms
Well something odd happened with that contract. The winning bidder (Nippon-Sharyo) couldn’t deliver. Here’s an article from April 2016.
A Japanese company hired to build new passenger railcars for regional Amtrak service has fallen years behind schedule and likely won’t complete the order before federal funding expires.
The stalled production undermines an ambitious plan to upgrade Amtrak service in California, Illinois, Michigan and Missouri and has highlighted the complexities foreign companies face in complying with made-in-the-U.S. requirements. Funding for about three-quarters of the 130-car order is tied to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
After repeated failures, engineers are now redesigning the car’s body shell. That and additional testing will take about two more years to complete, according to people familiar with the matter. The entire job was to be finished in 2018, with the stimulus-funded portion due for completion in 2017. Now, Nippon Sharyo isn’t expected to start production until 2018, people familiar with the work say.Click to read more!
With the news that the San Joaquin line is looking to get a new 8th daily train next year, I felt it was time to take a new look at Amtrak California ridership. This post looks at the most recent Amtrak report, which covers February 2017. Here are some older posts:
Since we last checked in, the San Joaquin received a new 7th daily train. Unfortunately, the addition of a new train has not resulted in higher ridership. In fact, it has gone down a tad.
The entire Amtrak system was down around 3%, compared to last February, which makes sense when you consider that February 2016 had one more day (leap year). Maybe doing these in February wasn’t the best idea, woops.
However, the San Joaquin line had the biggest drop in the entire system, 5.7% less than last year, and 10.8% less than projected. Stable ridership would be disappointing with the new frequency, but a decline is worrying. What’s going on? Unfortunately, it seems like reliability has taken a huge slide. The San Joaquin Rail Commission blames the wet winter, which created delays. Regardless of who’s to blame, the riders aren’t having it.
The San Joaquin was on time only 61.4% of the time in February (lowest since May 2014), and 71.2% in January.
The San Joaquin was showing stable growth over a period of years, and was catching up to the Capitol Corridor. However, the Capitol Corridor started recovering, while the San Joaquin has entered a slump. The Pacific Surfliner, on the other hand, keeps on growing. This past July it was just shy of hitting 300,000 riders in a single month.
Aside from delays, it is possible the new 7th daily train wasn’t scheduled at a time that customers would have liked. The Commission should look into shifting the times based on passenger feedback.
Onto the charts!
We begin with a chart showing all three California lines over the past 15 months. That allows us to see seasonal changes over the course of the year, and get a brief reference of year-on-year progress. Ridership is always highest during the summer.
Now we look as far back as I have data – from October 2008 until February 2017. The Pacific Surfliner especially has huge shifts from winter to summer – maybe international tourists?
And here are individual lines, showing the previous 5 years. The highest ridership month, July, is highlighted.
Finally, how these lines compare with other Amtrak lines (no changes in ranking from last year):
I will try and do another one of these showing ridership as of July (so a post in September or October) to see how the San Joaquin did after a full year of 7 daily trains. July is also fun since it tends to be the highest, so we can see if the Pacific Surfliner breaks 300,000.