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April 30, 2014

Rail agency wants to make Amtrak an option for commuters in Modesto, Turlock, Merced

A new rail agency hopes to make Amtrak trains a realistic option for Modesto and Turlock commuters heading to jobs near Oakland, Sacramento and the Southern San Joaquin Valley.

A new rail agency hopes to make Amtrak trains a realistic option for Modesto and Turlock commuters heading to jobs near Oakland, Sacramento and the Southern San Joaquin Valley.

Rigid current schedules have trains arriving in Sacramento and Bakersfield after noon, and in Oakland at 11 a.m., too late for most jobs. Commuters could reach those stations by 8 a.m. with seemingly simple changes, suggests a draft business plan being circulated by the recently created San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority.

The agency wants to hear what people think at a May 28 meeting in Modesto, and will take written comments through June 9.

The business plan also envisions an Amtrak extension serving the coliseum, airport and BART station in Oakland.

When they created the authority last year, local leaders hoped to boost Amtrak’s San Joaquin Corridor, the fifth-busiest line in the United States, by paying more attention to local needs than slow-moving state administration does. The new agency is composed of leaders in areas served by the San Joaquins, including Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties.

The new agency will continue to receive $109 million from the state and to contract with the operator, Amtrak. New leadership also sees ways to dramatically increase the San Joaquins’ popularity by reaching out to commuters, particularly those around Modesto, Turlock, Stockton and Merced.

Currently, the first northbound train leaves Bakersfield at 4:55 a.m., picks up Modesto passengers at 8:28 a.m. and doesn’t reach Oakland or Sacramento until 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., respectively. A 6:40 a.m. Sacramento train heading south hits Modesto at 8:09 a.m. and pulls into Bakersfield at 12:02 p.m.

Starting at Merced at 5:38 a.m. would have a northbound train pulling into Modesto about 6:18, for 8 a.m. arrivals in Oakland and not long after in Sacramento. People willing to catch a 5:38 a.m. train in Merced heading south could reach Fresno an hour later, and Bakersfield by 8 a.m.

The San Joaquins also stop in Denair, Stockton and other depots, with two round trips linking Sacramento and Bakersfield and four between Oakland and Bakersfield, for six round trips total each day. The California Department of Transportation’s rail administration, which technically still oversees the San Joaquins, expects to bump that to seven round trips next year. That will be the line’s first addition since 2002.

The San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority should assume control in about a year, and its draft business plan sees no reason the San Joaquins could not swell to 11 daily round trips, partly by capturing commuters in Valley counties.

“Providing increased frequency of service is essential to the continued growth of ridership and revenue for the San Joaquins,” the draft business plan says. The agency envisions that the next two round trips to be added, the line’s seventh and eighth, would cater to Valley commuters.

The authority wants to begin negotiating a new contract with Amtrak as soon as October. Other goals include:

• Market research and a new advertising approach
• Ticket sales on board rather than requiring advance purchases
• A smart-card fare collection option
• Group and family discounts
• New stations in Hercules, Berkeley, Elk Grove, north Fresno, northwest Bakersfield and at Sacramento’s 65th Street
• A new line to Redding
• “Computer displays with real-time viewing of all train movement,” including freight cars known to delay passenger trains

The business plan is careful to mention eventual integration with high-speed rail, the initial line of which will link San Francisco to Southern California via Merced in about 2022. Its bullet trains could exceed 200 mph; Amtrak trains top out at 79 mph.

A current rail alternative for commuters is the Altamont Corridor Express, which heads to East Bay jobs in Alameda and Santa Clara counties. Stations are in Stockton and Lathrop. ACE trains are run by the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission, which wants to extend a line from Lathrop to Modesto by 2018 and to Turlock and Merced a few years later.

The San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission also manages the new agency overseeing Amtrak’s San Joaquins. The 364-mile line carried 1.2 million passengers last year, a record high, and receives 55 percent of its income from ticket sales, up from 40 percent in 2003. By comparison, bus systems in Stanislaus County are struggling to meet a new mandate of 20 percent farebox recovery.

If the San Joaquins did not exist, people would drive cars an extra 100 million miles a year, the authority says.

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