Editorial by Noel T. Braymer
To get to the RailPAC/NARP meeting in Sacramento on January 16th I once again chose the San Joaquin Bus/Train connection. I have been riding the San Joaquin now for almost 30 years. In that time I have long hoped for direct rail service from Southern California to the San Joaquin Valley and San Francisco Bay Area.
I can drive from Oceanside to either Sacramento or the Bay Area in just over 8 hours. By bus and train it is more like 12 hours. To go to Sacramento I wanted to go by rail from Bakersfield to Sacramento at least once. I could do that on train 701 and get to Sacramento by 12:30, which gave me time to get to the 1:00 PM meeting in Old Sacramento. There was the problem that there are no connecting buses for train 701 south of Los Angeles. I solved this problem by buying a ticket to catch the bus at Glendale. By driving to Glendale I saved almost 2 hours compared to taking the bus from Oceanside. Not only was there 72 hour parking at Glendale but also 24 hour security.
It is rare for connecting Amtrak Buses in California to miss their trains. The buses have plenty of padding in their schedules and often are late at stops and still arrive early at the final train station. But when roads get closed due to accidents or weather (the Grapevine is often closed due to snow) the buses can get delayed. We had over a dozen people get off the bus in Bakersfield and 7 minutes later allowed on board the train at 6:55 AM for the 7:15 departure. Ridership was light south of Fresno, but at Fresno there is always a big crowd for the trains. There were heavy patches of fog in the Valley which was justification for taking the train instead of driving. Things were quiet until we got to Madera. The 702, southbound from Sacramento was over 10 minutes late and coming into the station about the time my train was due. Madera has double tracking but only one platform. So we went past the 702 and took a crossover to get to the other track and backed into the platform at Madera.
Despite leaving Madera 10 minutes late, by the time we got to the city limits of Sacramento we were in position to get into the station 10 minutes early. Then when we got to the junction where the Roseville and Stockton lines split we stopped and waited. Turns out the UP was replacing ties at the double track east of the station. First we waited for the maintenance of way cars to clear the track. Even then only 1 track was available. Then we waited because UP dispatchers were giving priority to a long container train coming from opposite direction. After sitting for over 30 minutes we arrived 20 minute late in the station.
I am so ready for High Speed Rail to get me around California for trips so I can leave in the morning and get home at night and still have a full day at my destination. As I was traveling I was thinking of some of the issues that need to be resolved to connect HSR and the San Joaquin trains. Bakersfield will have a station with both HSR and San Joaquin trains, but what about Fresno? Current plans call for sharing the BNSF right of way from Bakersfield to just outside of Fresno. The HSR trains are supposed to move to the UP at Fresno and use that right of way all the way to Sacramento. The UP shows no desire to allow any more passenger trains on their rights of way even with separate tracks. As Stacey Mortensen, Executive Director of ACE pointed out at the Sacramento meeting, UP is expecting major growth in its freight traffic in the future and plans to expand capacity to meet this projected growth. That is one reason UP is not interested in sharing any of its rights of ways. HSR trains will not be stopping at Hanford, Corcoran or Wasco so connections with the San Joaquins at Bakersfield and Fresno will be needed.
Stockton is another problem. There still isn’t a joint station shared by the San Joaquins and ACE. What I learned at the Sacramento meeting is that ACE and CHSRA are working on creating and sharing tracks and rights of way between Merced and Sacramento. ACE is also planning to build on a separate right of way a new rail line between San Jose and Stockton through the Altamont Pass. This would be combined with fast local service between Merced and Sacramento. One of the problems is finding a right of way to use without the cooperation of the UP. ACE is planning to build on an incremental basis services to San Jose, Merced and Sacramento starting with using their existing equipment. There are plans for faster interim light weight trainsets before finally using higher speed electrified trains in the final form. Top speeds would be between 125 and 150 miles per hour, with 125 more likely that 150. ACE and the CHSRA are aware of problems of mixing the slower future ACE trains with HSR. What is still not clear, at least to me is how the San Joaquin trains will connect with HSR and ACE at Merced and Stockton? Will they share the same right of way north of Merced and which right of way will that be? Does anyone know the answer to that now?
I again took the bus out of Sacramento so I could spend some time talking to people and eating before leaving town. I ended up spending an hour of that time at the Sacramento Station. I was surprised to discover that the heat worked in the heating ducts between the old original benches in the station. This spring work should begin to straighten the station tracks and then build new platforms. This will open up redevelopment around the station, though commercial property development is rather slow right now. Let’s hope that Washington will continue to spend more money for rail related projects in California and elsewhere. Partisan rhetoric aside, when it comes to getting money for projects in their district, all elected officials are willing to take credit for bringing home the bacon.