Update offered on commuter trains
The feasibility of a commuter train between Butte County and Sacramento has been under review for several years, and there’s finally enough information to share with the public.
That will happen during a virtual public workshop at 5 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 25. It’s the first public outreach on the North Valley Passenger Rail Strategic Plan, which envisions trains running between Butte County and a station in Natomas in northern Sacramento.
From that station, rail connections would be available to Oakland, San Jose and south through the San Joaquin Valley to Bakersfield.
People can sign up for the public workshop at bit.ly/NorthValleyRailMeeting.
During the workshop, planners with the Butte County Association of Governments will go through the preliminary assumptions that are guiding the planning process, according to Chris Devine, BCAG’s point man on the project.
Those assumptions include things like where stations will be located, the number of trains and travel time. A timeline for planning and possible implementation of the service will also be laid out.
There will be plenty of time for questions and answers afterward, Devine said.
What’s under review
Nothing has been decided, and the commuter rail service may still not come to pass. But as things are now shaping up, trains would run south from Chico each morning, stopping at Gridley, Marysville and Plumas Lake on the way to the Natomas station. The trains would return with those same stops in the evening.
A bus route would deliver Oroville commuters to the Gridley stop in time to catch the southbound train, and return them to Oroville in the evening. Similar coordinated bus routes would connect the other cities in Yuba and Sutter counties to the Marysville stop.
Devin said it looks like the train would take
about 70 minutes to get from Chico to Natomas, and about 90 minutes to get to the midtown Sacramento stop.
“We’re excited about that,” Devine said. “If it take more time for transit to get there than it does to drive, people will just drive. If we can make it about as quick, more people will use it.”
There will also be a shuttle service from the Natomas station to the Sacramento airport, a public transit link people have been asking for.
Devin said if all goes well, every day, two trains in each direction could be running by 2028. By 2030, that could increase to four trains each direction daily.
A potential ridership survey will be part of the planning process. That information will not be available by Thursday’s workshop, Devine said. However according to U.S. Census Bureau date, in 2019, 3,500 Butte County residents were commuting daily to Sacramento County. Another 3,400 were commuting to Yuba or Sutter County.
The rail service would also be supported by the 11,100 Yuba and Sutter county residents who commute daily to Sacramento, according to the Census.
“These may have dropped off some since the pandemic,” Devine said.
The commuter rail line would be operated by the agencies that operated the San Joaquin Railroad between Bakersfield and
Stockton: The San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission and the San Joaquin Joint Powers agreement.
Those agencies also run passenger trains between Stockton, and Oakland and San Jose.
The railroad group was awarded a $500 million grant to extend the service from Stockton to Natomas, and that work is underway. It will include stations in Elk Grove, midtown Sacramento and a couple of other points.
An extension to Butte County has been talked about for quite a few years, and in 2021, a $500,000 planning grant was awarded to see if it was feasible. That’s what’s paying for the work underway now.
If the commuter link actually comes to pass, getting the trains running would cost between $300 million and $500 million, according to Devine.
He said state and federal grants would be sought to pay for that, rather than expecting local jurisdictions to pay.
It’s not simple
A commuter rail service between Chico or Oroville and Sacramento isn’t just a matter of dropping a train on the tracks and running it back and forth. The tracks belong to the Union Pacific Railroad, and the route is quite busy with freight traffic.
That’s why initially, it was thought Oroville would be the Butte County terminus for rail service. However Devine said UP has since indicated the commuter trains could probably come to Chico, which makes more sense because of its larger population.
The railroad is working closely with BCAG, commenting on the planning assumptions. Devin called the meetings “productive.”
“They’re giving really good guidance and input on what will work for them. They definitely have their fingerprints on the plan.”
The Chico station
One of the more complicated issues to be resolved is where the Chico station might be located. The existing downtown station is a possibility, but parking would be a problem there.
There’s also the matter of needing a “layover facility,” which would be a spur track off the main line. The final northbound train would be parked there overnight, ready to head south early the next morning.
There’s no where near the downtown station such a siding could be placed. The nearest possibility would be four miles north according to Devine.
That’s why the idea of a new station with a layover facility is being considered on the Barber Yard area in southwest Chico. That’s the former Diamond Match factory, now owned by Dan Gonzales who is also the developer of Meriam Park.
Devine said Gonzales has not agreed to locate the station in Barber Yard, but is “continuing to entertain the possibility.”
Devin said both possible station sites will be considered during the environmental reviews, which are a next step in the planning process.