Val­ley’s Am­trak grap­pling with de­clines in rid­er­ship

Merced Sun-Star (Saturday) - - Living Chronicle - BY TIM SHEEHAN tshee­[email protected]­nobee.com

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 Cor­co­ranHan­ford 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.

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.

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.

JOHN WALKER [email protected]­nobee.com

2018 was the fifth con­sec­u­tive year of de­clin­ing rid­er­ship on Am­trak’s San Joaquin line. Still, it’s one of only six routes na­tion­wide to draw more than 1 mil­lion rid­ers.

JOHN WALKER [email protected]­nobee.com

Am­trak en­gi­neer Dale Cad­dell takes his train through Fresno dur­ing the "Safety Train" me­dia event. The event of­fered a unique be­hind-the-scenes look at the im­por­tance of rail safety from a con­duc­tor's per­spec­tive. This was a joint ef­fort by San Joaquin Joint Pow­ers Author­ity (SJJPA), BNSF Rail­way, Am­trak, and Cal­i­for­nia Op­er­a­tion Life­saver.

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