Val­ley’s Am­trak faces rid­er­ship de­clines

The Modesto Bee (Sunday) - - Local - 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 among three state­sup­ported Am­trak ser­vices op­er­ated in Cal­i­for­nia, along with the Capi­tol Cor­ri­dor trains that run be­tween Sacra­mento and Oak­land, and the Pa­cific Sur­fliner route that 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 ear­ly­morn­ing run meant mov­ing one of the seven daily trains from its for­mer sched­ule, rather than adding an eighth round trip to the sched­ule.

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.

“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.

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