You can’t ride a train directly from Modesto to San Francisco. That could change someday

Rail planners are looking at ways to get people from Modesto to San Francisco without transferring to a second train.

The project, perhaps 20 years from being built, could get more commuters off congested freeways and make for leisurely trips to the big city for shopping or dining.

It likely would require a new rail crossing of San Francisco Bay, a roughly $12 billion to $15 billion idea that is getting a fresh look. The crossing could be a new or widened bridge, or a tunnel that supplements the Bay Area Rapid Transit tube between Oakland and San Francisco. Or both bridge and tunnel, if the demand is there.

The new crossing could connect to rail systems that already link the Central Valley and Bay Area. They include the Amtrak San Joaquin service, which runs daily between Bakersfield and Oakland, and the Altamont Corridor Express, a weekday service between Stockton and San Jose by way of Livermore.

ACE users now can transfer to Caltrain in the South Bay and ride up the Peninsula to San Francisco. Amtrak riders can board a BART train at Richmond and head under the bay. Richmond also is a transfer point for Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor between Auburn and San Jose.

“Right now, if you’re in the Northern San Joaquin Valley or Sacramento and you need to get into San Francisco, there’s no direct transit service,” said David Kutrosky, managing director of the Capitol Corridor.

He spoke to The Modesto Bee on a conference call with Ellen Smith, BART’s manager for strategic and policy planning. Its Transbay Tube opened in 1974 but will fall short if the Bay Area job boom continues.

These projects are separate from the high-speed rail system long envisioned for California, which ultimately would connect Modesto directly with San Francisco and other major cities.

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Gov. Gavin Newsom last month called for completing just the Merced-Bakersfield segment of high-speed rail by 2027. It is already under construction. This line will connect to an already-funded ACE extension that will reach Ceres by 2021 and Merced a few years later.

High-speed rail faltered as its total projected cost rose to $77 billion. It also faced questions about the impact on Valley farms and deviation from the plan approved by voters in 2009.

No funding source has been determined for building a new bay crossing and the connections to Amtrak and ACE. The planners expect to spend the next decade studying the options and doing detailed engineering. Smith said this will include an updated look at travel patterns in a 21-county “megaregion” in and near the Bay Area.

The current bay crossing planning is led by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which serves nine Bay Area counties but is coordinating with outlying rail systems.

Rail advocates hope to build support among the 72,000 or so people who commute from the Northern San Joaquin Valley to the Bay Area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

About 2,400 ride ACE, which runs four westbound trains each weekday morning and four eastbound trains in the late afternoon and evening. A trip from Stockton to Silicon Valley takes about two hours. From there, a Caltrain ride to San Francisco is about 1 hour, 20 minutes.

The long-term options for ACE include a new rail bridge in the south bay, close to the automobile-serving Dumbarton Bridge, said Dan Leavitt, manager of regional initiatives for the San Joaquin and ACE services. The trains could continue north to San Francisco without a transfer to Caltrain, he said.

The Amtrak San Joaquin service has five daily round trips between Bakersfield and Oakland. Another two or three trains a day go to Sacramento rather than Oakland.

An on-time Amtrak train gets riders from Modesto to Richmond BART in about two hours. The BART ride into San Francisco is about 35 minutes.

“One seat” trips to major cities are a goal of many rail planners. San Francisco has not just jobs, Kutrosky said, but sports and other leisure destinations. (And San Franciscans are welcome to ride the other way and catch a show at the Gallo Center for the Arts, two blocks from Modesto’s upcoming ACE station.)

“We would be opening up a brand-new market that is there but woefully underserved by a forced transfer,” Kutrosky said.

None of this would be at the 200-mph-plus envisioned in high-speed rail, but portions would be faster than today’s Amtrak and ACE thanks to already-approved upgrades to the tracks.

The boosters also note that ACE and Amtrak riders can plug in their laptops and get some work done on the trip. Or they can sleep in one of ACE’s “quiet cars,” or buy food and drink aboard Amtrak.

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John Holland covers breaking news and has been with The Modesto Bee since 2000. He has covered agriculture for the Bee and at newspapers in Sonora and Visalia. He was born and raised in San Francisco and has a journalism degree from UC Berkeley.