Valley agency takes control of Amtrak San Joaquin trains

Some Amtrak passengers arrive in Fresno aboard their San Joaquin train while others get ready to board in this 2011 file photo. The San Joaquin service between Bakersfield and Sacramento-Oakland is the fifth-busiest Amtrak corridor in the nation. A new regional consortium is taking over management of the service from the California Department of Transportation.
Some Amtrak passengers arrive in Fresno aboard their San Joaquin train while others get ready to board in this 2011 file photo. The San Joaquin service between Bakersfield and Sacramento-Oakland is the fifth-busiest Amtrak corridor in the nation. A new regional consortium is taking over management of the service from the California Department of Transportation. Fresno Bee File Photo

Amtrak’s San Joaquin rail line, the fifth-busiest passenger-train corridor in the U.S., will be under new management starting Wednesday.

Control of the San Joaquin trains, which last year carried almost 1.2 million passengers, is being assumed by the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority. The authority, formed about two years ago to increase local control over the service, is taking over from the California Department of Transportation’s Division of Rail. The agency is made up of representatives from counties and regional transportation agencies along the train’s route between Bakersfield, Oakland and Sacramento.

Passengers who ride the trains on either an occasional or regular basis are unlikely to notice any difference in the travel experience, because Amtrak will continue to run the trains under an operating contract. And while Caltrans will keep providing the money to support the service, the oversight and policymaking will become the responsibility of the regional authority. The authority has contracted with the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission — which operates the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) trains between Stockton and San Jose — to handle day-to-day operational supervision and administration.

But the authority — grown from the seeds of discontent with Caltrans’ slow response to regional concerns — does have plans for improving train service in the Valley.

“There’s no question, it’s a valuable and needed service in the Valley, and that’s shown by the numbers of more than a million folks a year riding the train,” said Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea, one of the new authority’s two vice chairmen. “We’re giving it more of a local focus. For Caltrans, this was just one piece in a very big organization. We have more of a vested interest.”

One of the first orders of business will be to establish a long-sought additional train to the roster of 12 daily trains — six northbound, six southbound — that have been offered since 2002. Of the six daily round trips, four run between Bakersfield and Oakland, while the other two run between Bakersfield and Sacramento.

“One of the big challenges, especially for business travelers, is that it’s difficult to get from Fresno to Alameda or Sacramento by 8 a.m. to do business,” Perea said. “We’re looking at a new train starting mid-run, Merced to Alameda, to arrive by 8 a.m.” The authority’s business plan calls for that new train to begin service in late 2015 or early 2016. Yet another train starting mid-run heading south, most likely from Fresno, would come sometime in the future.

The formation of the new rail agency isn’t so much a declaration of independence from Caltrans as it is a declaration of codependence, modeled upon the 1998 formation of the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority to take over management of the Capitol Corridor train line between Auburn and San Jose from Caltrans. The state ponies up the financing for the service, and the regional authority handles the administrative chores.

“I think we’re trying to get the best of the state role, from a big-picture, statewide policy standpoint, and then have the ground soldiers in the communities through the JPA,” said Stacey Mortensen, executive director of the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission. “People have more access to the decision makers and have a lot more opportunity to talk about services they’d like to see or things they don’t like. Caltrans just can’t do that from Sacramento.”

“It will be an evolution of the program,” she added. “I think we’ll be able to keep the strengths and hopefully add a few more ideas and efficiencies, and get a little closer access for the public to the system.”

The San Joaquin rail authority isn’t alone in seeking greater control over the passenger train service in its region. The LOSSAN (Los Angeles/San Diego/San Luis Obispo) Rail Corridor Agency is taking over management of the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner trains from Caltrans. The transfer of the San Joaquin and Pacific Surfliner trains to regional agencies now means that all three of the state-supported Amtrak lines — including the Capitol Corridor — are under local governance.

1,188,228San Joaquin service ridership in 2013-14 (fifth highest in U.S.) aboard 12 daily trains

1,419,134Capitol Corridor service ridership in 2013-14 (third highest in U.S.) aboard 30 daily trains

2,681,173Pacific Surfliner service ridership in 2013-14 (second highest in U.S.) aboard 23 daily trainsSource: National Railroad Passenger Corp. (Amtrak)

Experience elsewhere

Supporters of the San Joaquin JPA point to the Capitol Corridor experience to illustrate one of the key advantages of local operational control of the state-owned trains.

In 1998, when the Capitol Corridor JPA was established, Caltrans and Amtrak operated eight daily Capitol Corridor trains — the same number as on the San Joaquin line. By last year, the regional authority managed to nearly quadruple the number of daily trains on the Capitol Corridor to 30 between Sacramento and Oakland and 14 between Oakland and San Jose. In the meantime, Caltrans increased the number of daily trains on the San Joaquin line only from eight to 12.

David Kutrosky, managing director of the Capitol Corridor JPA, said the state already had a long-range plan to increase service on the Sacramento-Oakland-San Jose line. “What we were able to do is implement it at a faster pace than originally envisioned,” he said. “What we did is work with our operator, Amtrak, sharpen our pencils and worked on more cost-effective expansion plans.” Caltrans remained instrumental, he added, because it orchestrated the state’s investment of millions of dollars of transportation-improvement bonds in the early 1990s to increase the capacity of the railroad tracks between Sacramento and Oakland to operate additional trains.

At the same time, the Capitol Corridor has been able to improve the financial performance of its operations. “We’re not going to make a profit, but we’re continuing to move in the right direction,” Kutrosky said. When the joint authority took over from Caltrans, the service recovered about 30% of what it cost to operate the service. Last year, Amtrak reported ridership of 1.42 million passengers and ticket revenues of $27.1 million on the Capital Corridor — enough, Kutrosky said, to recover about 52% of the operating costs.

Moving forward

Dan Leavitt, manager of regional initiatives for ACE and the San Joaquin, said Wednesday’s management transition will be seamless for passengers riding the trains. “Amtrak is our train operator today and will remain the train operator,” Leavitt said. “The San Joaquin trains have served the region well for years and will continue to do so. Our objective is to help grow the service and improve it in the future.”

Leavitt said the details of adding a new early-morning train to the Bay Area later this year still need to be worked out. “But that’s definitely a key to the service, to have trains that are able to start in the middle part of the corridor to reach the endpoints early in the mornings,” he said. “Right now it’s difficult for passengers if they have a morning meeting or an event to attend, so this will open up the service for more people to be able to take it.”

Amtrak Thruway buses carry people from stations along the route to other destinations not served by the trains — chiefly between Bakersfield and Los Angeles, as well as from Stockton to Sacramento for the four daily northbound trains that go to Oakland. When the new early train begins rolling to Oakland, so would an early connector bus from Stockton to Sacramento, Leavitt said.

In addition to the new train, the San Joaquin authority expects to begin a marketing campaign with more of a regional focus. “There are a lot of people who just aren’t aware of the service that’s available,” Leavitt said. “We’re really trying to make an effort to let people know how they can use this service and where it can take them.”

Perea said Caltrans has allocated about $50 million to the San Joaquin Corridor for the 2015-16 fiscal year. About $48 million of that is for Amtrak’s train operations, with about $2 million for administration and marketing.

Perea said the San Joaquin agency board will also push to keep fares low. Currently, he said, ticket prices escalate when passengers wait until the last few days to buy their tickets. “The closer you get to the day you want to travel, the fares go up,” he said. “We don’t like that ticket escalating, and we don’t want that anymore.”

Instead, the agency hopes to work with Amtrak to reduce overall costs “and have a fixed ticket price, whether you buy two weeks in advance or buy it the day of travel,” Perea said. “Amtrak needs to start thinking about different ways of doing business and look at that with an eye toward reducing costs.”

In recent years, ticket sales for the San Joaquin trains have managed to recover between 50% and 55% of the line’s operating costs. In 2013-14, Amtrak reported that ticket revenues on the San Joaquin service totaled about $38.1 million. Only eight Amtrak routes in the U.S., including the popular Northeast Corridor with its Acela Express trains, generated more money in ticket sales.