The non-resident driver's licensing law recently signed by Gov. Jerry Brown could help to provide a safer and more secure means for Hispanics to use Amtrak without fear of being jailed, deported or otherwise harassed for their racial background.
At the very least, the use of these new driver's licenses could help reverse a long-standing aversion to riding Amtrak on the part of Hispanics — Hispanic here largely meaning being of Mexican descent, though it also applies to anyone with Latin ancestry.
Amtrak complies with Homeland Security laws, instituted in the wake of 9-11, requiring riders to show government-issued photo identification — very much as airlines do. Amtrak diligently informs ticker buyers of this requirement, even though it intimidates prospective riders who are not legal residents and offends sympathetic friends and family who are legal residents.
Hispanic ridership on Amtrak's San Joaquin line (between Los Angeles, Sacramento and Oakland) is only about 20% of its total ridership — despite the fact that Hispanics represent roughly 50% of the population in the San Joaquin Valley.
This discrepancy in the ethnicity of riders is well documented in ridership studies that Amtrak conducts (but does not share with the public). I know this because for most of the last decade, I represented Fresno County on the San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee — a quasi-governmental body created by the state Legislature to advise Caltrans and Amtrak on behalf of the counties served by the San Joaquin line. As a committee member, I was privileged to see these studies, but the essence of them is hardly a secret. Readers can easily see this discrepancy for themselves simply by observing the comparatively small number of Hispanic riders on San Joaquin trains.
To me, this discrepancy is particularly tragic since Amtrak is faster, safer and, in almost every case, more affordable than automobile travel.
The rail committee regularly reminded Amtrak, Caltrans and their advertising agency, Glass McClure, of the need to advertise in Spanish. Glass regularly promised to market in Spanish as well as in English to potential Hispanic riders. They did so dutifully but rarely effectively. I recall that Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall, Madera County Supervisor Max Rodriguez, and Merced County Supervisors Gloria Cortez-Keene and later John Pedrozo, among others, frequently joined me in expressing concerns about this.
I recall one particular meeting at which (as always) a young, new and very well-dressed Glass McClure account agent gave a slide presentation showing a beautifully printed full-color "Companions Ride Free" brochure and coupon that Glass had produced for an Amtrak promotion. When I asked about the Spanish versions with coupons in Spanish, we were told that they had only printed these in English. At this point my elected counterpart, Fresno County Supervisor Judy Case, became upset, reminding them that roughly 70% of her constituents were Hispanic.
A newly created Joint Powers Authority will replace Caltrans as Amtrak's managing partner for the San Joaquin service in the summer 2014. The JPA board feels the same way as the SJVRC did: In its first meeting, Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea, vice chairman of the board, made sure that "diversity" would be a key concept in the managing agency's business plan.
How effective the JPA can be at this if Amtrak does not want to cooperate remains to be seen. It took two years of badgering by the San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee to get Amtrak to offer an option for information in Spanish to its "Julie" voice-automated reservation system.
Amtrak lamely complied by uselessly placing that offer in Spanish at the end of the English-only reservation message. After another year of badgering, Amtrak moved this offer in Spanish to about 20 seconds into the recording, which is almost as useless. But that is still where the offer remains, while virtually every other service provider (PG&E, DMV, AT&T, Comcast, etc.) puts its brief Spanish language option only a few seconds into its message. I think Amtrak eventually will cooperate.
My hope is that Gov. Brown's signature on the non-resident driver's license law will help Amtrak realize that trying to attract more Hispanic riders isn't just about decency and good manners. It's good business, too.
This discrepancy is particularly tragic since Amtrak is faster, safer and, in almost every case, more affordable than automobile travel.
Larry Miller of Fresno served on the San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee from 2002-2010, advising Amtrak and Caltrans on behalf of Fresno County with regard to the operations of Amtrak's San Joaquin service. He also has served on other passenger rail advisory groups.