Remember the 2010 stimulus package? Way back then, money was set aside to build new trains for Amtrak California. They were supposed to be similar to the existing bi-level models, but with an updated design, and arrive around 2016. Their arrival would allow for Amtrak California to expand train service on all three routes.
Unfortunately, the company who won the bid (Nippon-Sharyo), completely failed at that task. After several years of building a prototype, they said they could not build what they said they would. In 2016, Amtrak California announced a plan B: they would buy existing Talgo trains that had been built for Wisconsin, but never used. Except that never happened, and there’s no official reason as to why. They just stopped talking about it. 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!
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!
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.”
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.
The recent news that the Amtrak San Joaquin line is getting a 7th daily train inspired me to ask, how is ridership doing? Long-time readers might remember that Amtrak ridership updates used to be a frequent (quarterly) feature on this blog, but the last one I did was in December…of 2012! Oops. Well, I’ve updated my spreadsheets, so let’s take a look at how ridership has been doing on California’s three state-supported Amtrak lines.
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.
One thing popped out at me immediately. See July 2015? See how close the San Joaquin is to the Capitol Corridor line? Turns out, that month, the San Joaquin had 90% as many riders as the Capitol Corridor. That’s huge. For reference, in July of 2009, the ratio was 66%, and in 2010, 63%. I did some additional digging and it looks like the highest it has ever been was July 2015, when the ratio was 94%.
This is even more impressive, because while the San Joaquin has been fighting for a 7th daily train, the Capitol Corridor line gets 15 round trips a day.
That indicates to me, that with the new train, the San Joaquin might surpass the Capitol Corridor in ridership for the first time ever – with half as many trains, and operating some hand-me-downs.
It’ll be hard to keep giving the San Joaquin 3rd tier status when ridership starts to exceed what has been a model corridor. As the new service starts in June, the July numbers will be very interesting indeed. I’ll report them when they get released in late September.
Viewing all three lines over 7 years shows how they’ve all grown and changed over time.
Now we see that the San Joaquin is showing the fastest growth, but the Pacific Surfliner is very healthy. Capitol Corridor is not doing so amazing. However, part of that reason was a change in accounting. In September of 2013, Amtrak changed how they calculated ridership from sales of 10-ticket packs. According to their reports.
In FY14, Amtrak began counting actual lifted ridership for multi-ride tickets (due to eTicketing), rather than the estimated multi-ride ridership used previously.
This impacted the Capitol Corridor line more than any other in the country, because so many riders are commuters. This change didn’t impact revenue at all however. What appears to have happened was that commuters were buying 10-packs, Amtrak was assuming they were riding – but they didn’t. Either they lost their tickets, or kept them in a drawer, or they expired. So Amtrak gets the money, but the seat went empty.
So in October 2012, ridership was reported as 150,461, and in 2013 for October, just 125,807. That’s a lot of expired tickets!
Here we can see each line, individually, from 2011 to now. July of each year has been highlighted as it tends to be the month with highest ridership.
How does this compare nationally? Here are the top ten lines around the country for January and February of this year – the latest data available.
The order hasn’t moved much since 2012. One service that saw significant declined was DC-Newport News, but I believe that’s because Virginia added trains to other destination, so the ridership is now split between 3 lines instead of one.
What jumps out as always is that California makes a lot of sense for High Speed Rail. Always assumed to have low rail ridership by East-Coast media, train ridership in California is always strong.
I hope to do these updates a little more often again, especially to see if the added service draws more riders thanks to a more convenient schedule.
Nothing quite says Christmas like fresh graphs and Amtrak ridership stats. Since I haven’t done one of these Amtrak California ridership updates since August, I figured we were well overdue in taking a look at the most recent trends. In my last update, we had ridership stats up to May, today I have until September.
The San Joaquin continues to be the line showing the greatest gains in ridership. The Capitol Corridor and Pacific Surfliner are not showing much growth, as they are pretty stable compared to last years numbers (up a bit, then down a bit). Next year should continue to show growth on all lines as the economy improves, resulting in more people moving about. Megabus has started service between Sf and Sacramento which may impact Amtrak ridership in that corridor.
How much has the San Joaquin grown?
In June of 2011, the San Joaquin exceeded 100k riders in one month for the first time ever. It exceeded that again in July.
This year, the San Joaquin took over 100k passengers for FIVE months in a row; April-August.
On the other end, the lowest ridership month was January, with 83,053. Meanwhile, in 2009, 6 months had ridership below 80k, with three months in the 60’s. Pretty big leaps in ridership numbers.
Ridership on all three lines, October 2008 – September 2012. All three lines show upwards growth, although the San Joaquin is growing fastest.
All three lines, past 15 months
San Joaquin, an easier way to visualize year on year increases
San Joaquin, past 13 months
Capitol Corridor, past 13 months
Pacific Surfliner, past 13 months
How the California lines compare nationally for July
How the California lines compare nationally for September. The Downeastern recently got extended, and just missed the cut. Expect it to show up in the top 10 ranking soon enough. Important to note that positions 8-12 are quite competitive.
It’s been a badly kept secret, but Megabus is returning to California later this year. Megabus originally entered the California market in 2007, but left in mid 2008 due to poor ridership. Believe it or not, but Megabus served California before they began operations in the northeast corridor, which is now their strongest market.
Back in 2007, service was focused on LA, with routes to Vegas, San Francisco, Phoenix and San Diego. The Central Valley was not served, as the buses used I-5 to express between LA and the Bay Area. Megabus was unhappy with ridership, and took all their buses east.
After pulling out of California, Megabus focused on the northeast (based in NYC), where they’ve constantly expanded. They then set up a hub in DC, Atlanta and most recently began operations in Texas.
If Texas can support Megabus, California sure as hell can. The bus network here is extremely underdeveloped, but that means a huge opportunity. Megabus was not patient last time, but hopefully they come in wiser.
Earlier this year, the WSJ reported
Megabus plans to expand its network of U.S. intercity coach services by 50%, purchasing assets from a rival to push into Texas and California.
Dale Moser, president of the U.K. company’s Coach USA Inc. unit, said the proposed deal would provide facilities and extra buses to expand from its existing network serving 80 cities, mainly in the Midwest and the northeast, though it has more recently moved into the southeast and Canada.
At the time no date was given for service, but now Cyclelicio.us has reported seeing the giant buses in San Jose, making training runs. (Pictures at link). They’re the same buses you now constantly see on the east coast.
Here’s one of them in Boston (they now load inside South Station, not Back Bay)
And the easily identifiable logo
So what is Megabus? If you’re reading from Fresno, you probably haven’t noticed the enormous expansion in US intercity bus travel over the past 5 years.
Basically what happened is that a few different express services launched, which have successfully re-branded bus travel. Actually, let me restate that….there was a whole bunch of express service already available, but it was entirely based around Chinatown. Cheap, but with a side of risk. Then Megabus and Boltbus came in, giving the market a little bit more visibility.
If you think of Greyhound, you’re probably thinking of 11 hour bus rides, cramped seats and not the best clientele. Indeed, that’s the kind of service you’ll get if you venture to the Greyhound station in downtown Fresno, although the company recently began to introduce newer buses and more direct service in the state (branded as Greyhound Express).
Besides Greyhound, Fresno is also served by three or four Mexican bus lines, which begin their routes as far north as Seattle and terminate at the Tijuana airport (but you’re more than welcome to simply ride between Fresno and LA). As you can imagine, 95% of this customer base are Mexican nationals heading home.
The SF-LA market is somewhat similar, with a large market-share going to Vietnamese and other Asian bus lines, in the same way NYC was dominated by the likes of Fung Wah.
Unlike these traditional bus lines, Megabus (and their competitors like BoltBus) attempt to spruce up travel in a few significant way. I recently took BoltBus on a trip to DC, and while the travel time was longer than advertised, the trip was comfortable.
1. More comfortable than yesterdays Greyhound bus. More leg room and better seats. Megabus uses double-decker buses, which allows for a more comfortable bathroom and also higher odds you get to sit alone. TVs with headphone audio are inside the bus, but sadly never used.
2. Amenities like power outlets and free wifi
3. Guaranteed seating (Greyhound isn’t)
4. Low fares. Megabus starts their pricing at $1.50. Every run has a single seat (or two) at this price. Prices then rise to $3, $6 etc until the bus fills, at which point the last seat is something like $25-$60 (depending on route length)
Here is what the interior looks like
What’s also important is that the buses run with very few stops. LA-SF for example, might see a single stop in San Jose.
There’s also one last thing that makes these buses more desirable.
The clientele. Again, this isn’t your average Greyhound crowd.
While it started targeting young professionals and seniors, Moser
said female passengers between 30 and 55 have emerged as its
second-largest demographic, sandwiched by the two other groups. Click to read more!
Thanks in part to some of the stimulus money of 2010, Amtrak California will be receiving 42 new rail-cars to service the three in-state routes it runs. Sadly, that process is slow, and the builder of those trains has only just been announced, with deliveries not set to begin until 2015.
With rail ridership on a non-stop upwards trend now, what can the state rail agency do to increase capacity in the short term?
The answer lies in buying used.
Or in this case, VERY used.
California earlier this year made a subdued announcement about the work they’re doing to bring new train cars to the valley. I haven’t seen the media report on this, but there was a presentation a few weeks ago that shed light on the work.
Amtrak has purchased 14 rail-cars from New Jersey Transit and will rebuild them to be suitable for use on longer distance routes. That is, the interior will change, the exterior, not so much. That means the San Joaquin will be going from the bi-level coaches we love to older single level (and high floor!) models.
So, why did NJT sell these trains? Well, they’re not the newest chickens in the coop…
Coaches were built as Arrow I EMUs in 1968-1969 and were overhauled into push/pull coaches in 1987-1988
In other words, these train cars were built before Amtrak even existed (Amtrak started in 1971).
The cars will be complemented with the addition of existing single level Amtrak diners and baggage cars. Basically, there are going to be three new trains. 14 coach cars will be divided as two 5 car trains and one 4 car train. Each train will have a diner and a baggage car.
That means, the San Joaquin is going to get much longer to handle the same type of capacity per train. Current trains look like this:
Engine-Coach-Coach-Diner-Coach with some trains having an additional coach at the end, so 5-6 long.
The new trains will probably look like this:
Engine-Coach-Coach-Diner-Coach-Coach-Coach-Baggage with one train having one less coach car, so 7-8 long.
So what do these things look like?
Outside, they look like this:
The insides currently look like this:
That’s not what we’ll be riding. The cars are being rebuilt to resemble the interior of modern Amtrak California cars. That means 4 seats per row instead of five, folding tables at every seat, with shared tables in the middle, room for baggage and large restrooms. Also, a bike rack. Oh, and MUCH more leg room.
Besides the tables, standard Amtrak ameneties like power outlets and free wi-fi will be included. Naturally, the entire interior will look brand new (as it will be) instead of 40 years old.
So basically, this:
Getting new trains is good news, as it means more flexibility. Three more trains make it easier to add a 7th and 8th daily train on the San Joaquin, or, elsewhere. By placing the trains in the valley, they could keep current schedules and have three bi-levels be made available on the other routes.
And that is the downside to this. The three trains are destined to the valley, and while the insides will be new, they do come with one significant downside.
They’re high floor models, while the current stations are designed for the low floor trains. That means, to get on and off, there will be stairs. The doors are also narrower than what we’re used to, because they were designed for commuters and not travelers with bags. They will also be manual instead of automatic doors.
Today, it is very easy to stroll onboard.
Not so much.
All this means that the stops are going to take MUCH longer, especially if you consider the number of elderly passengers riding. And while the trains are accessible to the disabled, those in wheelchairs will have to wait for a staff member to get and operate a lift. Potentially, this could mean over 15 minutes added to the run times of the route.
If the new trains mean that they can finally add the long promised 7th daily train, then this is a welcome inconvenience. However, if the new trains are simply a way to whisk away the more attractive bi-levels to the other two California routes while lowering the quality of service in the valley? That would be a bad way to reward the San Joaquin passengers who have been riding the train in greater numbers every month.
As of now, Amtrak has not released their plans for these new trains, except for stating they won’t be ready to roll for at least another six months. I’m crossing my fingers that the announcement will come with improved service. Perhaps it would be best if local politicians and media push for that?
Pictures are a mix of my own and Amtraks. The presentation where they came from, with a few other details, can be found here (PDF).
Also: The new blogger interface has been pushed upon me. It’s terrible. Why do web companies feel that the best way to grow their company is to inconvenience their users? I don’t get the business model at all, and I hate having to deal with it.