Merced is key to Amtrak commuter plan

04/30/2014 4:27 PM

04/30/2014 9:04 PM

Merced is the key to an emerging plan for Amtrak trains to carry Valley commuters 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 from Merced, Modesto and Turlock 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 document says some early-morning trains should start from the middle of the line – Merced – instead of the Bay Area, Sacramento and Bakersfield. That would enable rail cars to reach those terminuses early enough to suit most commuters.

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 Merced, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties.

The new agency will continue to receive $109 million from the state and to contract with the operator, Amtrak. And new leadership 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 Merced passengers at 7:48 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 Merced at 8:51 a.m. and pulls into Bakersfield at 12:02 p.m.

Starting instead from Merced at 5:38 a.m. would have a northbound pulling into Oakland at 8 a.m. and not long after in Sacramento. People catching 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 a total of six round trips each day. The California Department of Transportation’s rail administration, which technically still oversees the San Joaquins, expects to bump 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 that 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 instead of requiring advance purchases.
• A smart-card option for paying fares.
• 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 with stations in Stockton and Lathrop. Trains head to East Bay jobs in Alameda and Santa Clara counties. 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.

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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