Those 49er faithful who have yet to discover the Valley’s rail connection to Levi’s Stadium are really missing the train.
So said enthusiastic Modesto-area football fans — to a person — riding the rails Sunday to San Francisco’s home game against the Washington Redskins.
“This is the only way to come to a game,” said Ripon’s Brad Cook, a 49ers season-ticket holder since 1995.
“To me, it’s a no-brainer,” agreed Greg Hoagland of Modesto, who hates fighting traffic.
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“My blood pressure is low on the train. It’s a lot easier than driving,” said Jamie Thompson of Modesto, riding with his 15-year-old son, Jared.
Escalon’s Heidi Altamirano may have conflicting loyalties — she wore a 49ers T-shirt and a Redskins jacket — but she wasn’t confused about travel advantages offered by the Altamont Corridor Express.
“We used to always drive, and sit there and wait for hours,” she said.
Cox Thornton III said he returned to his Hughson home, thanks to the ACE train, before friends who drove to the 49ers’ Sept. 14 game against Chicago. And train passengers don’t pay outrageous parking prices, he said.
They do pay $30 for a roundtrip ticket from Lathrop’s ACE depot to another only steps from Levi’s Stadium. Parking at the station is free.
When ACE early this year pitched the alternative-travel partnership with the 49ers, they figured to break even if 600 riders would pay an introductory price of only $13.50. They needn’t have worried; through Sunday, 49er trains have drawn an average of 667, each paying the $30 premium, while weekday commuters from the San Joaquin Valley to Silicon Valley pay $23. Some 350 commute from the Stanislaus County area, and ACE wants to extend its line to Modesto by 2018, and to Turlock and Merced a few years later.
In the summer, Thompson bought an annual parking pass for $50, a price offered to season-ticket holders, and drove to the first two home games. Then he discovered the train and has never looked back, even at $60 a game for two ACE tickets.
“You’re pumping gas going and pumping gas coming,” said Johnny Contreras of Modesto, his bicep sporting a Redskins tattoo while his wife, Rosemary, wore 49ers gear.
“The train is cheaper than taking two cars,” he continued, noting nine extended family members in his party. “And we get to spend more quality time with family.”
Jim Mercurio, 49ers vice president of stadium operations, said the team offered to compensate ACE if trains did not fill. The 49ers love the partnership, he said, even if it affects only 600 or so of the roughly 70,000 people attending home games.
“Those 600 people account for 200 or 300 cars that otherwise would be on the road, guzzling gas, not helping the environment,” Mercurio said. “If a season-ticket holder doesn’t have a pregame tailgating need, it’s a great experience.”
Some customers report riding over in cars to tailgate with friends and riding the train home, said Brian Schmidt, operations director for the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission. The ticket is $30 whether people ride one way or two.
Others might not appreciate boarding the train after the game and having to wait for the scheduled departure. Also, the train can’t wait if the game runs into excessive overtime, which hasn’t been an issue yet.
A train ride home beats driving any time, Cook said. If his team loses, “I can listen to my music and sulk. And when we win, it’s almost a party atmosphere. Strangers are high-fiving. The place comes alive.”
Richard Curiel and Rufus Keaton, both Turlock residents, wore jerseys with the familiar No. 7 reflecting the town’s favorite son, 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Curiel, a football referee, called many of Kaepernick’s youth and high school games, and Keaton’s son was teammates with Kaepernick in football, baseball and basketball.
“Even when he was little, he had that look in his eye,” Curiel said, “and you knew he was going to be successful.”
“But sitting around eating dinner, who would have thought he would end up quarterbacking the 49ers?” Keaton said.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2390.