By Noel T. Braymer
The Sacramento station is already one of the busiest Amtrak Station in California. There is excellent ridership from the Capitol Corridor, Coast Starlight and California Zephyr trains. The same however can’t be said about the 2 round trips a day on the San Joaquin trains to and from Bakersfield. Why is that?
It is no secret what is needed to increase ridership to Sacramento on the San Joaquins. Better schedules, more frequent service, more intermediate stations and better connections to more markets are the answers. A major problem with the current schedule is the first San Joaquin train of the day in Sacramento doesn’t arrive until 12:30 in the afternoon. The only afternoon departure is at 4:55 PM. Such a schedule isn’t convenient for a day trip to Sacramento, it doesn’t give a person much time to do much. For travel from Sacramento the train leaves at 6:40 in the morning and arrives bzck in Sacramento at 11:30 PM.
For the San Joaquins to work, an earlier arrival in the day to Sacramento is needed to give passengers more time for a useful day trip. Also needed is more frequent service to give passengers more flexibility for travel. Just a third round trip would help reduce the gaps between trains. There has been planning for some time to add a third train on this segment. Planning calls for up to 6 round trips in the foreseeable future.
Just as important for ridership besides more frequencies is additional stations are needed. Comparing the Oakland bound San Joaquin trains to the Sacramento ones, you have 4 intermediate stops between Stockton and Oakland. From Stockton there is only one stop at Lodi before the trains get to Sacramento. The Sacramento Metro area has a population of over 2 million and many of those people live miles away from downtown Sacramento. There are currently 2 additional stations planned in the Sacramento area.
There are plans to build a San Joaquin trains station at Elk Grove. This is at the southern edge of the Sacramento suburbs. By itself Elk Grove has a growing population already of over 150,000. This doesn’t count the communities near it. Elk Grove is roughly the size of Oceanside on the LOSSAN Corridor which has Pacific Surfliner, Coaster and Metrolink service. For train trips south of downtown Sacramento, it is a time consuming detour to go pass Elk Grove and then back track to where one is leaving from or going to for passengers at or near Elk Grove.
A second station being proposed is at 65th Street in eastern Sacramento. This would be near the University/65th Street station of the Sacramento RT Light Rail Gold Line Station. This is also near the campus of the California State University of Sacramento. There are many people who live east of downtown Sacramento along the Highway 50 corridor to Folsom which the Gold Line also serves. For many people in the Sacramento area a station at 65th street would be more convenient than going downtown to the Sacramento station.
What makes any station works are the level of connections to other markets. This is both a matter of location and ease of transfers. Of the 3 out of 4 round trips to Oakland on the San Joaquins there are bus and train transfers to Southern California as far as San Diego. Only one round trip for the Sacramento section has a bus/train connection to San Diego. This works best for trips leaving Sacramento and returning. There are no bus connections with the trains arriving in Sacramento in the early afternoon or or leaving in the evening south of Santa Ana. This is a major market of over 4 million people not being served. This is despite the first San Joaquin leaving Bakersfield before 5 AM usually getting at least 2 busloads of passengers on a train for Oakland. Many of these passengers come from south of Santa Ana and few from north of Los Angeles. Expanding bus service to more populated areas on the Sacramento trains is needed to bring in more ridership and serve more markets.
An awkward part of the San Joaquin trains service is there are 2 separate station in Stockton. There is a different station for passenger on the Oakland section than for the Sacramento trains. It has been recognized for years that a joint station to connect with ACE trains between Stockton and San Jose is needed for all San Joaquin trains. But like many issues for the San Joaquin trains, little progress or even agreement on a site has been made so far.
There are even bigger issues coming up for Sacramento service on the San Joaquins in the near future. Finally construction is starting in the San Joaquin Valley for High Speed Rail this year. While use by High Speed Trains is not expected before 2022 on this new railroad, there are plans to expand San Joaquin service on this railroad between Bakersfield and Madera by 2018. These would use new equipment to run express service at speed up to 125 mile per hour. For this new expanded service to do well it will need better and more rail service to Sacramento as well as other connections. These other connections include better and faster bus service, particularly to Southern California and connections to more ACE trains to the East Bay and San Jose.
When the first leg of High Speed Rail is running between Merced and Burbank in the next decade, good connections will be need to Sacramento. There is no telling when a direct High Speed Rail line can or will be built to Sacramento. Sacramento is too large a travel market in California to ignore. To get to 6 daily round trips between Stockton to Sacramento will need double tracking of the line which is now single tracked. Trains speeds for much of the San Joaquin route can be raised from 79 to 90 miles per hour. This will require signal upgrades and improvements to the grade crossings. There are at least 210 grade crossings on the San Joaquin line.
But these and other improvements will cost a fraction and have fewer local impacts than building a new high speed railroad to Sacramento and most importantly in far less time. As things stand now many of the improvement proposed on the San Joaquins for Sacramento service have already been put off for years. As each of these improvements are made a noticeable increase in ridership will occur. With the work starting in the San Joaquin Valley for faster service will come the need to make it possible to use this expanded service.