CENTRAL VALLEY — Riding trains appears to be getting more popular.
Both valley options, Amtrak and Altamont Commuter Express, show growth trends in recent reports.
A national Amtrak study by the Brookings Institution reveals solid gains for Modesto's depot among many stops in the San Joaquin corridor, from Bakersfield to Stockton and Oakland. The San Joaquins posted 66 percent growth in the past 16 years, compared with Amtrak's nationwide average of 55 percent in the same period.
"American passenger rail is in the midst of a renaissance," reads the report, released Friday.
ACE trains, not part of the Brookings study, are on the upswing too.
Hundreds of workers from Stanislaus County board in Lathrop on weekdays, bound toward San Jose on commuter rail, accounting for 27 percent growth since the service bumped up to four trains a day in the fall. Fares were 59 percent higher in January than the same month in 2012.
"It's amazing," said Thomas Reeves, spokesman for the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission, which runs the ACE service. "Our ridership has really gone up."
ACE hopes eventually to extend a line to Modesto and perhaps Merced.
Modesto's Amtrak station, east of town off Briggsmore Avenue, replaced one in Riverbank in 1999 and now welcomes 143,000 riders a year, up 75 percent since 1997, the Brookings report says.
The research group said Amtrak is bucking the perception of "a big, bloated bureaucracy incapable of change and dependent on federal subsidies."
Although far more people take cars and airplanes, those modes of transportation grew at a slower pace in 16 years 16.5 percent and 20 percent, respectively.
Domestic airlines have not yet recaptured pre-recession numbers, the report says, while trains made up a 5 percent drop and are setting record highs, with more than 31 million Amtrak passengers in 2012.
The long and short of it
The report says short-distance routes of less than 400 miles the San Joaquins rumble 300 miles are "the engines of Amtrak ridership," accounting for 83 percent of tickets sold across the United States. Such corridors are more profitable than longer routes, which lose big money.
Amtrak has relied on state and federal subsidies since Congress created the rail operator in 1971, and it faces spending cuts under federal sequestration.
More impressive than the San Joaquins is Amtrak's Capitol Corridor from Sacramento to San Jose, whose 197 percent growth is attributed to local administration as opposed to oversight by the California Department of Transportation.
Leaders along the San Joaquin line want to do the same. Needing buy-in from at least six area agencies to form a regional rail authority including Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced counties, which signed on in December they landed nine and will meet for the first time in March. Kern and Kings counties are the only holdouts.
Amtrak's biggest gains have been in California, Washington state, Missouri, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Texas and North Carolina. The service operates 21 routes in 15 states, which contributed $191 million in 2011.
Reeves said people tend to ride trains more when gas prices spike.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham, who represents Stanislaus County and part of San Joaquin County, recently became chairman of the House's subcommittee on railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials. On Tuesday, its first meeting under his leadership will focus on freight and passenger rail's contribution to the economy.
Most of Amtrak's 21,000-mile system uses rails owned by freight companies.
The San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority's inaugural meeting is set for 1:30 p.m. March 22 in the Merced Civic Center, 678 W. 18th St.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2390.
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