Small towns along Amtrak route hope they're not forgotten by high-speed rail

Rural Valley areas use trains like buses, to get from town to town.

The Fresno BeeApril 29, 2012 

CORCORAN -- This Kings County farming town has come to rely on Amtrak California's San Joaquin line -- six northbound and six southbound passenger trains stop daily.

For Amtrak, Corcoran may be little more than a whistle-stop. But for some residents here and in other communities, the train is a vital transportation option for them to get to the nearby county seat of Hanford and beyond for opportunities that just aren't available otherwise.

"Our residents rely on Amtrak for employment opportunities, medical services, education endeavors," Corcoran City Manager Kindon Meik testified at a recent meeting in Sacramento. "And they use Amtrak to connect to regional hubs outside of the county."

Some Amtrak advocates in the San Joaquin Valley fear that option could be eliminated, however, if California's plans for a high-speed train system are realized.

The latest version of a business plan published this month by the California High-Speed Rail Authority envisions 220 mph passenger trains flying through the Valley between Merced and the Los Angeles Basin within a decade.

The plan anticipates that the 1 million or so passengers who now ride the Amtrak San Joaquin trains each year would shift onto the high-speed service, and that Amtrak service would likely be discontinued.

For towns like Corcoran, Madera and Wasco, where Amtrak trains now stop, there's a catch: They won't be served by the new high-speed trains. They will, in effect, become fly-by communities, likely just a blur along the tracks to the passengers aboard the new system.

That would deprive people in those towns of an important way for them to get around.

Donnie Thomas, a retiree from Corcoran who doesn't own a car or have a driver's license, said the train is how he gets to and from Hanford three or four times a week for business and pleasure.

"It's a lifeline for me," Thomas, 55, said last week as he waited in Hanford to catch the train back home. "Corcoran doesn't have nothing -- no movie theater, no bowling alley, no Popeye's Chicken. ... You get tired of eating at the same places all the time in Corcoran, so you have to get away sometimes."

Over the past few weeks, state rail and transportation officials have said they're looking for ways to preserve that lifeline and maintain some sort of local train service to those towns.

But there also are concerns in other communities along the Amtrak route.

Over the past two decades, Hanford has renovated and improved its old downtown Santa Fe depot at Seventh Street and Santa Fe Avenue into a modern transportation station for Amtrak trains and local and regional bus services.

Months ago, city leaders said they want no part of high-speed tracks coming through the heart of Hanford. So the proposed new line is expected to veer either east or west of the city. If there is a high-speed station at all in the Hanford area, it would be on the outskirts of town.

The rail authority also expects that before high-speed trains start operating in 2022, Amtrak trains could use its new tracks between Merced and Bakersfield once they are completed in 2017. That could take the Amtrak service away from the downtown depot.

In recent weeks, the potential for future passenger trains to bypass cities now served by Amtrak has riled leaders in Kings County, where sentiments against the rail authority already are running high.

A growing rumble

The number of passengers in the prospective bypass cities are relatively small. In Corcoran, for example, Amtrak reports that there were 27,424 boardings and arrivals in the 2010-11 fiscal year. Madera had 21,739 riders that year, and Wasco had 18,209.

That compares to ridership in the larger Valley cities along the Amtrak line -- those that would have high-speed rail stations on the new system: Bakersfield with 476,767, Fresno with 371,875, Hanford with 199,291 and Merced with 114,401.

But the small towns have fewer options for people to get around, advocates say.

The loss of Amtrak service in Corcoran "is going to affect real people," Kings County Supervisor Richard Valle testified at an April 19 rail authority meeting in Sacramento.

"Every morning as I drive by that station, I see the same group of folks out there waiting to take that train, that Amtrak to get them to their places of business. They're not there to take that Amtrak to go on vacation. They're there to go to work."

Meik, the Corcoran city manager, said the loss of Amtrak would leave his city's residents isolated from the county seat in Hanford. "It would also decimate our city-owned transit, our bus system that relies on Amtrak and is intricately connected to it."

Thomas said he has ridden the buses that run between Hanford and Corcoran, "but it's only two times a day. If you come to Hanford in the morning, the next one going back doesn't leave until 3:10 p.m., and I don't want to wait around out here all day."

Because Amtrak has six southbound trains daily to get him back to Corcoran, "taking the train is just more convenient," Thomas said.

It's cheap, too. At the city-run train station in Corcoran, residents can buy a one-way ticket for the 16-minute ride to Hanford for $3.25, or $6.50 for a round trip. Buying a last-minute, one-way ticket to Corcoran at Hanford's Amtrak station, on the other hand, costs $11.

The difference in price is because the city of Corcoran buys tickets at a discount from Amtrak to re-sell to residents.

"I always buy two round-trip tickets, regardless," Thomas said. "I always keep a ticket for emergencies."

At the Corcoran station last week, two young women in medical scrub uniforms sat on a bench, texting intently on their cellphones as they waited for the 11:07 a.m. train to Hanford. They said they ride the train four days a week to their classes at San Joaquin Valley College in Hanford.

A few feet down the platform, Richard Sellers of Corcoran was waiting to see off his daughter, Marie Sellers, as she returned home to Fresno. Richard Sellers said he takes the train to Hanford or Fresno about once a week. Marie Sellers said she rides less frequently. "But with gas prices the way they are," she said, "I'm thinking about taking it more often."

The pair differed on what high-speed rail would mean for Corcoran.

"It's not going to do anything for us because it's not even going to stop here," Richard Sellers said.

But his daughter said she believes the high-speed train will be good to help people in the high-unemployment region find work in other areas.

"If you don't have a job and you need a job, you'll be on that train to go find work somewhere else," she said.

Protecting service

Passengers in both Corcoran and Hanford agreed that it will be crucial for them to preserve local train service for the small communities now served by Amtrak, if and when a high-speed line is built.

That's not lost on Dan Richard, chairman of the High-Speed Rail Authority.

"For many people here in this part of the Valley, my understanding is -- both talking to people and looking at it -- that it almost operates like a bus between some of the communities," Richard said when he met with Kings County supervisors this month. "People jump on it, go down the line, jump off in the middle of Hanford, go over and have some ice cream. It's things that people do."

Richard acknowledged the worries about lost service. "It's very much on our mind and we know that moving to a high-speed service threatens to leave some communities that need that kind of feeder service behind," he told the supervisors. "I think we can all work together to make sure that doesn't happen."

Richard said he expects to work with Kings County and other counties now served by Amtrak, and with Caltrans, "to have a rational plan for protection of that service."

Caltrans' Division of Rail supervises the Amtrak San Joaquin service. Caltrans rail division chief Bill Bronte also said Caltrans expects to continue providing service to the existing San Joaquin corridor -- including the towns that will be bypassed by high-speed trains.

Bronte said a marketing study will help Caltrans determine the future passenger demand on the current Amtrak line and how many trains will be required to meet those needs.

Then he added his commitment to the small cities: "We don't want to lose service in Corcoran. We don't want to lose service in Wasco. We want to continue to provide service in Hanford."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, or@tsheehan on Twitter.

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