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.