Amtrak's San Joaquin Valley trains see record ridership

The Fresno BeeDecember 2, 2013 

Fueled by record ridership of more than 1.2 million passengers last year, Amtrak's San Joaquin trains generated more than $39.4 million in ticket sales.

That's almost 2% more than 2011-12 , and enough to rank the San Joaquin Corridor as the third-highest in ticket revenue among Amtrak's short-distance routes in the U.S. outside of the densely populated line between Boston and Washington, D.C.

But ticket sales and record ridership weren't enough to make the route a profitable one. A state subsidy was still needed to keep the line going.

The San Joaquin route includes 12 daily trains through the Valley -- six northbound, six southbound -- between Bakersfield and Oakland or Sacramento. Up and down the line, all but four of the 18 stations on the route saw more passenger activity -- boardings and alightings -- than they did the year before. In Fresno, for example, Amtrak reported almost 400,000 passengers, up 1.3% from 2011-12. In Hanford, the number was up by 7.1%, and Madera saw an increase of almost 11%.

"It's a reflection of our growing population in the Valley," Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea said of the rising passenger figures.

Perea, who is the vice chairman of a new San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority that will take over administration of the San Joaquin Corridor trains from Caltrans within a year or two, said more people are considering trains as an alternative to driving or flying for travel within the state.

"When you want to get from Point A to Point B and measure the cost of Amtrak against driving or airplanes, it comes to how people evaluate the time and cost," Perea said. "If it costs $25 to get to somewhere on the train, but it takes three hours and people are OK with that, then Amtrak makes sense." Perea said he frequently takes Amtrak to travel from Fresno to Sacramento to attend meetings.

The 1.2 million people who rode trains on the San Joaquin line made the route the fifth busiest passenger rail corridor in the country.

Sacramento was the single busiest station on the San Joaquin line, with more than 1.1 million boardings and alightings. But Sacramento's station, as well as stations in Emeryville and Martinez, also serve Amtrak's Capitol Corridor, California Zephyr and Coast Starlight routes.

Bakersfield saw more than 546,000 people boarding and getting off of trains. Matt Rocco, a spokesman for the California Department of Transportation, said Bakersfield's higher numbers are because the city is the southern terminus for the San Joaquins.

"Just about anyone who boards in Fresno, Sacramento or the Bay Area heading south will terminate at Bakersfield," Rocco said. "And coming the other way, people in Bakersfield aren't the only ones heading north. People from all over Southern California are getting on the train at Bakersfield."

Despite gaining passengers and growing revenue, the trains running through the Valley are not a money maker.

The San Joaquin line is one of about two dozen "state-supported" corridors in Amtrak's system in which states subsidize a portion of the operating costs as a service to travelers, essentially making up for what Amtrak loses on the operations. Last year, the Caltrans subsidy for the San Joaquin corridor was almost $31 million. That means ticket revenues covered a little over 55% of the costs.

Rocco said the state's subsidy for the San Joaquins in 2013-14 is about $42 million.

Even though ridership and ticket revenue on the San Joaquin trains ranked high within the Amtrak system, the corridor's on-time performance slipped from the prior year, posting the largest drop in performance among all Amtrak routes. The on-time rate last year was 78.3% -- meaning that about one of out every five trains was running late. In 2011-12, the on-time rate was 87.7%.

From July through September, the biggest reasons for delays on the San Joaquin route were meeting or following other passenger trains, interference delays from freight trains, or signal delays, according to Amtrak.

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

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