Editorials

It’s Hard to get Around California by Train

By Noel T. Braymer                                                                                                              It’s not easy going from Los Angeles to San Francisco by train; particularly for a one day trip. But Los Angeles-San Francisco is one of the largest travel markets in this country. On the Coast Starlight it takes about 12 hours and a bus ride from Emeryville to get to San Francisco. Taking the San Joaquins to San Francisco requires both a bus ride from Emeryville and from Los Angeles to Bakersfield. If you take the 1:45AM bus from Los Angeles and catch the San Joaquin at 4:55AM you can be in San Francisco by 11:20 AM. To get back to Los Angeles the last bus of the night leaves San Francisco at 5:15PM which will get you to Los Angeles by 2:20 AM.

What would work much better would be a direct overnight train between Los Angeles and San Francisco. This could be done with one additional trainset on the California Zephyr with connecting service at San Jose to San Francisco. But considering we are no closer today to extending one Surfliner from San Luis Obispo to San Francisco than we were 15 years ago, this isn’t likely to happen any time soon.

Our best hope for significant service improvements in the near term will be with improvements in the San Joaquin Valley for future High Speed Rail with construction starting this year. After 2018 we can expect additional express San Joaquin trains running at speeds up to 125 miles per hour for a distance of 130 miles between Madera and Bakersfield out of the 315 miles between Oakland and Bakersfield.

Currently it takes more or less 6 hours and 10 minutes by train between Bakersfield and Oakland. The bus connection between Los Angeles and Bakersfield with intermediate stops is now scheduled for 2 hour and 15 minutes. That is roughly 8 and a half hours by bus and train between Los Angeles and Oakland. What would it take to create a decent one day service for most of California?

To reduce the running times between Los Angeles to Oakland from 8 and a half to 6 hours would require 4 hour running times between Bakersfield and Oakland.This would also need 2 hours or less express bus service between Los Angeles and Bakersfield. The San Joaquin Trains now average about 50 miles per hour with a top speed of 79 miles per hour. This is the fastest average speed of any passenger train in California. To run the San Joaquins in 4 hours would require an average speed of 79 miles per hour. This will be easier said than done.

The 130 miles of new track construction in the San Joaquin Valley is just over a third of the 315 miles between Oakland and Bakersfield. Between Oakland and Port Chicago along the upper bay much of the current railroad has top speeds of 40 miles per hour. To cut running times to 4 hours will require raising trains speeds for passenger trains from 79 to 90 or even up too 110 miles per hour between Madera and Port Chicago as well as some improvements from there to Oakland.

Assuming 4 hour Bakersfield to Oakland rail service and 2 hour bus connecting service to Los Angeles for a 6 hour trip, what could this look like? To arrive in Oakland by 9:00 AM would mean a Bakersfield departure by 5:00 AM and a Los Angeles Bus departure by 3:00 AM. For an 11:00 AM Oakland arrival that’s a 7:00 AM Bakersfield departure and a 5:00 AM bus departure out of Los Angeles.

Now lets look at southbound travel. Currently the last departure out of Oakland is 5:50 PM southbound. That train is scheduled in at Bakersfield by 11:56 PM and the bus to Los Angeles arrives by 2:20 AM. A 4 hour train trip leaving Oakland at 6:00 PM would arrive in Bakersfield by 10:00 PM. With an express bus a passenger could arrive in Los Angeles by Midnight. With an 8:00 PM train out of Oakland that’s Midnight to Bakersfield and bus connections to Los Angeles by 2:00 AM.

While such a schedule would still be far from perfect, cutting 5 hours out of the round trip between Los Angeles to Oakland from 17 hours to 12 hours would be a major improvement. This would be faster than travel by private auto. It would improve service from the San Joaquin Valley to the Bay Area, Sacramento and Los Angeles area. A 6 hour running time will make possible day trips from the Bay Area south to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

The earliest a person can leave Oakland today is 7:30 AM with an arrival in Bakersfield by 1:41 PM and Los Angeles by 4:10 PM. The other option is a bus from Oakland at 5:30 AM for a ride to Stockton by 7:35 AM to catch a train from Sacramento to Bakersfield. That will get you in Los Angeles by 2:30 PM. The second to the last departure out of Oakland leaves at 1:15PM and arrives in Los Angeles at 9:50 PM.

With a 6 hour running time a train leaving Oakland at 5:00 AM would get to Bakersfield by 9:00 AM and Los Angeles by 11:00 AM. An 8:00 AM departure from Oakland would arrive in Bakersfield by Noon and Los Angeles by 2:00 PM. For return trips a bus leaving at 6:00 PM from Los Angeles and the connecting train from Bakersfield at 8:00PM would arrive in Oakland by Midnight.

The question remains, when can we look forward to service something like this?
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