Expanded train service coming to Modesto, Merced; what it means for commuters

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.

"Now we have nearly $1 billion worth of funding to expand our rail systems and our rail options," said Chris Kay, manager of marketing and outreach for the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission. "It's a very exciting time."

The money was awarded by the California State Transportation Agency, which is shifting somewhat toward rail from the highway-first thinking of the past half-century.

The work funded Thursday includes stations, locomotives, passenger cars and upgrades to track, some of it shared by busy freight trains. The highlights:

  • ACE by 2020 will expand north with stations in Lodi, Elk Grove and four Sacramento sites. The stations will be shared with the Amtrak San Joaquin service, which already runs between Sacramento and Bakersfield.
  • ACE by 2023 will get a second and third station in the Manteca-Lathrop area and new stations in Ripon, Modesto and Ceres.

  • ACE by 2027 will reach Merced, with stations in Turlock and either Livingston or Atwater.

Amtrak will continue to have its own stations in Modesto, Denair, Merced and points south, and build a new one in Madera. This line also has a branch between Stockton and Oakland.

Amtrak, unlike ACE, mainly serves leisure rather than business travelers in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. But it is making moves toward the latter, including the May 7 debut of a northbound train that will reach Sacramento by the start of the business day.

The funding drew praise from Vito Chiesa, a Stanislaus County supervisor and chairman of the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority.

"It is essential to support travel and economic growth in this interconnected economy, and connect communities in ways that are convenient and sustainable,” Chiesa said in a news release.

The ACE and Amtrak projects are part of an effort to link various rail systems. They including BART and Caltrain in parts of the Bay Area and light rail in Sacramento, San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

The trains in turn could connect with the high-speed rail system that has started construction in the Fresno area but remains controversial. The system would run between Southern California and the Bay Area by way of Merced. A later branch would reach Sacramento by way of Modesto.