Valley’s Amtrak grappling with ridership declines, despite earlier times

All aboard for new early morning Amtrak train to Sacramento

Amtrak has added a train that gets San Joaquin Valley residents to Sacramento before 8 a.m.
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Amtrak has added a train that gets San Joaquin Valley residents to Sacramento before 8 a.m.

Amtrak’s San Joaquin trains that roll daily through Fresno en route to Bakersfield, Oakland and Sacramento marked their eighth consecutive year carrying at least 1 million passengers, and maintained their status as the sixth busiest passenger rail route in the nation.

It’s one of only five routes outside the populous Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C. to carry more than a million riders last year.

But the federal fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 was also the fifth straight year in which ridership on the San Joaquin trains has declined since a high point of 1.2 million passengers in 2012-13.

The San Joaquin trains carried 1, 078,707 riders from October 2017 through September 2018. That’s down from 1,120,037 in 2016-17 — a drop of 3.7 percent for the year, and nearly 11.6 percent less than 2013.

The drop comes despite schedule changes that include the May launch of an early morning train from Fresno that arrives in Sacramento by 8 a.m. to accommodate more business travel to the state Capitol.

The San Joaquin trains are one of three state-supported Amtrak services operated in California, along with the Capitol Corridor trains that run between Sacramento and Oakland, and the Pacific Surfliner route which connects Los Angeles and San Diego as well as San Luis Obispo.

“The issue the San Joaquins face compared to the other lines is that it’s been dependent on leisure markets,” said Dan Leavitt, regional initiatives manager for the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority.

Amtrak operates the trains under a contract with the authority, which includes representatives from the 10 counties along the route in the Valley and Bay Area.

But gas prices are lower now than in 2012, and Leavitt said train ridership for leisure travel is linked to gas prices. Ridership increases when prices are higher, and decreases when prices are lower.

One way the authority has sought to change that is the early Sacramento Morning Express train. “We’ve been trying to have the San Joaquins serve additional markets, not just leisure travel,” Leavitt said. “We want to build some business markets to use the San Joaquins.”

But creating the early morning run meant moving one of the seven daily trains from its former schedule, rather than adding an eighth round trip to the schedule.

“And it’s taken some time to catch on,” Leavitt said. There is also more competition from buses that serve many of the same communities along the Highway 99 corridor through the Valley, he added.

A set of fare changes approved by the joint powers authority board in September was intended to “normalize” fares to a more equitable fare rate per mile by reducing fares for most – but not all – shorter trips.

For example, the cost of a one-way ticket for the 30-mile train ride from Fresno to Hanford – the busiest station pair on the San Joaquin line – was only $5. By contrast, the price of a ticket from the Kings County town of Corcoran to the county seat in Hanford was $9, even though it’s only 17 miles.

By the time the new fares are fully installed in April 2020, the Corcoran-Hanford ticket will fall to $7.50, while the cost for the Fresno-Hanford ticket will rise to $7.50, according to the rate table presented to the regional board in September.

“Due to the modest nature of the increase, it is not expected that it should have a significant effect on ridership,” said David Lipari, the joint authority’s marketing and outreach manager, in a staff report.

“Additionally, when compared to the Pacific Surfliner and Capitol Corridor, the San Joaquins would still hold the lowest fare rate per mile by over 25 percent in most cases, which is important due to the San Joaquins ridership being less economically advantaged.”

Leavitt told The Bee that the authority also has ticket deals to reduce the cost, including discounted tickets for friends and family members traveling with a full-fare passenger, as well as monthly passes that also cut the cost of a ticket.

“Before, we offered several different fares depending on when you bought a ticket,” Leavitt said. “I think the fares people are getting now are more stable.”

Fresno County Supervisor Sal Quintero, who represents the county on the joint powers board, said he hopes to see additional marketing of the San Joaquin trains in Spanish-language media to help promote the service.

“My thought has always been, we have to let folks know the convenience factor, why it’s worth it to ride Amtrak, and then we can raise the rates,” Quintero added.