Ridership on Amtrak’s San Joaquin train service through the Valley was above 1 million for the sixth consecutive year. But despite the addition of more trains on the route, the number of people taking the trains continued a three-year slide – the result, operators say, of low gasoline prices and aggressive competition from low-cost bus lines.
In the federal fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, Amtrak reported a 1.3 percent increase nationwide on all the services it runs, including the busy Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C., its long-distance cross-country routes and a collection of shorter-haul routes that are supported by subsidies from the states they serve. Across the country, Amtrak hauled more than 31.2 million passengers for the year.
The state-supported San Joaquin route, which runs north- and southbound trains between Bakersfield and Sacramento or Oakland, was Amtrak’s sixth busiest line in the country, and one of only five outside the Northeast Corridor to carry more than 1 million people a year. The line carried 1,122,301 passengers from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30. That was down 4.7 percent, or almost 55,000 riders, from the 2014-15 fiscal year. Ticket revenue for the trains came in at about $35.6 million, a 4.8 percent decline from the year before.
“We’ve been working with Amtrak to see if we can figure out what may be the causes for the decrease,” said Dan Leavitt, manager of regional initiatives for the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority, which assumed oversight of the San Joaquin service from the California Department of Transportation in July. Amtrak operates the trains under a contract with the 10-county authority.
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The route’s ridership peaked at more than 1.2 million in the 2012-13 fiscal year – about the same time that gasoline prices were peaking in California – and have declined in each succeeding year. Leavitt said he believes the correlation between ridership and gas prices is more than just a coincidence.
“For a lot of our passengers, that’s something we feel is an impediment,” he said. “Our riders are mainly traveling for leisure, so they have the alternative of driving when gas prices are lower.”
Leavitt cited several other factors that may be in play: a slip in on-time performance for the trains since the passenger peak, stronger competition and more aggressive pricing by bus companies such as Megabus and Bolt Bus between the Bay Area and Southern California, and a slowdown of advertising by Amtrak of its California statewide services before the joint authority resumed running ads this year.
At the start of 2016, the San Joaquin service ran 12 daily trains – six northbound, six southbound. In June, the service added one more southbound and northbound train to the daily schedule. But that didn’t grow ridership as expected.
“It was not what we’d hoped for; we haven’t seen that true bump yet,” Leavitt said.
As a state-supported Amtrak line, Caltrans picks up the operating costs over and above what the route generates in ticket revenues. For the 2016-17 fiscal year, that operating subsidy is estimated to be about $43.4 million, according to a November report to the 10-county San Joaquin authority board.
Over the coming year, the authority has plans to do more to make the service more attractive to business travelers – and generate more income from ticket sales – by adding another train that can get passengers to Sacramento by the start of the business day.
Currently, the earliest northbound San Joaquin train departs Bakersfield at 4:25 a.m., reaches Fresno at 6:18 a.m. and arrives at 8:33 a.m. in Stockton. From there, the train continues to the Bay Area, reaching Oakland at 10:26 a.m. Passengers bound for Sacramento must transfer at Stockton to an Amtrak Thruway bus that gets to the Sacramento Amtrak station at 9:45 a.m.
Two daily round trips to Sacramento just isn’t enough. We’re focusing our efforts for expansion on getting more round trips to Sacramento.
Dan Leavitt, San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority regional initiatives manager
Leavitt said the goal is to develop an overnight layover facility in Fresno for an early train to Sacramento, and improvements including additional parking and improved security at stations in communities along the way between the two nodes.
“We want to get our first train to Sacramento in the early morning hour so people can do business,” he said. “By having service get there in the early morning, that opens up the San Joaquin service to new markets that we don’t currently serve.”
Only two of the seven daily northbound trains run through to Sacramento without a bus transfer; on those runs, Bay Area-bound passengers go by bus. Similarly, two of the southbound trains start in Sacramento and meet up in Stockton with buses coming from Oakland.
“Two daily round trips to Sacramento just isn’t enough,” Leavitt said of the direct trains. “We’re focusing our efforts for expansion on getting more round trips to Sacramento, and looking with Amtrak and the freight railroads at what improvements are needed.”
Only about 13 percent of riders on the San Joaquin trains are on business trips, according to a ridership report to the Valley authority in November.
The report suggests that an early-morning start for a train from Fresno to Sacramento represents a better initial strategy, later adding a start from Fresno to Oakland.
“While there is a greater frequency of service between Oakland and Bakersfield, staff believes that the strong linkage between the state Capitol and San Joaquin Valley communities makes service to Sacramento ideal for the inaugural mid-corridor service,” the report states.
“Moreover, there is great support among the local and regional agencies along the corridor between Sacramento and Fresno as well as with the elected officials in the northern San Joaquin Valley for an early-morning Amtrak San Joaquin train to Sacramento.”
But while the authority hopes to increase its trains’ appeal for business travel, it’s also offering a “friends and family” deal to attract even more leisure travelers. If a passenger buys one full-price ticket, he or she can buy up to five more tickets for the same trip at half price.
“It’s still a new program and a lot of people don’t know about it yet,” Leavitt said. “We’re very hopeful it will encourage more people to ride the train.”
The busiest Amtrak station on the San Joaquin line last year was Bakersfield, with about 492,000 passengers. Because Bakersfield is the end of the train line where passengers must transfer onto Amtrak Thruway buses to continue to Los Angeles, the figure includes those bus transfers. Fresno’s station was second with 369,582 passengers. The greatest ridership between any two station pairs on the route was Fresno-Bakersfield, attracting 99,000 passengers.
Two other intercity Amtrak routes in California, the Capitol Corridor between Auburn through Sacramento to San Jose and the Pacific Surfliner between San Diego and San Luis Obispo, both reported ridership increases in 2015-16.
The Pacific Surfliner was Amtrak’s second-busiest corridor in the nation last year, carrying more than 2.9 million riders – a 3.4 percent increase from 2014-15. And with nearly 1.6 million passengers, the Capitol Corridor ranked third in the country after a 5.8 percent increase in ridership.
Both of those routes offer more frequent trains than the San Joaquin line: The Pacific Surfliner has a dozen trains in each direction between its main nodes in Los Angeles and San Diego, while the Capitol Corridor has 15 trains in each direction between Oakland and Sacramento on weekdays and 11 on weekends; seven of those Capitol Corridor trips in each direction connect to San Jose.
Busiest San Joaquin train stations
The number of passengers boarding Amtrak’s San Joaquin trains at each station on the service route in 2015-16 were:
Stockton (San Joaquin Street)
Source: San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority