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Wednesday, Jan 02 2013 06:59 PM

Amtrak's valley line sets ridership record in 2012

BY TIM SHEEHAN The Fresno Bee

Amtrak's San Joaquin line, the valley's only passenger train service, posted record ridership in 2012, attracting more than 1.1 million passengers last year.

The record number of people riding the rails comes even as controversy continues to boil over plans to run high-speed trains through the region from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

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The Amtrak San Joaquins -- six daily trains northbound and six southbound between Bakersfield and the Bay Area and Sacramento -- also saw revenue from ticket sales rise in the 2012 fiscal year to about $38.7 million. That's a boost of about $3 million, or 8.3 percent, over 2011.

The growth in ridership on the valley trains corresponds to similar increases seen by Amtrak nationwide -- a record 31.2 million passengers, said Christina Leeds, an Amtrak spokeswoman.

Much of the growth nationwide was in the Northeast Corridor and on the West Coast. Three of Amtrak's six busiest corridors were in California -- the Pacific Surfliner trains that run from San Diego to San Luis Obispo, the Capitol Corridor line that links Sacramento to San Jose, and the San Joaquins, which saw a 7.2 percent jump in ridership.

Amtrak attributes the growth to improving passenger services including e-tickets and WiFi aboard its trains, and travelers who are weary of high fuel prices for automobiles as well as congested highways and airports.

Amtrak's station in downtown Fresno, along the BNSF Railway tracks near Fresno City Hall, saw a significant increase in passenger activity on the 12 daily trains that ply the San Joaquin Corridor.

Amtrak reported that more than 394,000 passengers either boarded or got off trains in Fresno last year, up from almost 372,000 in 2011. Passenger counts also increased at all of the other whistle-stops in the central San Joaquin Valley, including Merced, Madera, Hanford and Corcoran.

Yet despite the rising ridership and revenue from ticket sales, the San Joaquins -- along with Amtrak's other California lines and many others across the country -- remain money-losing propositions. In its 2013 budget projections, the National Railroad Passenger Corp. -- the formal name for Amtrak -- estimated a loss of $5.79 for every passenger riding on the San Joaquin trains.

Of 45 Amtrak passenger train lines across the U.S., only five make money. Among the money losers, only three lose less per passenger than the San Joaquins.

The San Joaquins, along with the Pacific Surfliner and Capitol Corridor trains, are run by Amtrak under contracts with Caltrans' Division of Rail, which subsidizes the service. Caltrans supports the San Joaquin Corridor to the tune of about $90 million a year.

Valley leaders are maneuvering to take policy-making decisions from Caltrans by forming a new a regional rail agency, the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority. The authority would be modeled after the Capitol Corridor, a similar joint agency comprising transportation agencies along that route.

Amtrak's San Joaquin line has grown from eight trains per day in 1998 to 12 last year under the California Department of Transportation's rail administration.

But the Capitol Corridor line quadrupled during the same time, from eight daily trains to 32, under a consortium of Sacramento-area rail leaders who wrested control from the state and became more responsive to travelers' needs, say valley officials who hope to do the same.

Local control could "result in improved service and increases in ridership and revenue," Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh wrote in a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown. Marsh also predicted more jobs and better air quality with improved train service.

Six of the region's transportation agencies must sign on to make the new authority a reality. Five in the north end of the corridor -- from Contra Costa, Merced, Sacramento, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties -- already have agreed.

Fresno, Tulare, Madera and Alameda counties have yet to vote. Those in Kings and Kern counties, where opposition to high-speed rail runs high, may not go along, but their participation is not required.

So sure are leaders of a sixth partner joining in January or February that the future authority has scheduled a March 22 public kickoff meeting in Merced.

The local push to take over the San Joaquin Corridor is not directly related to high-speed rail, although the bullet-train system would lean on regional commuter rail lines to bring passengers to it.

Smaller towns along the route fear that the California High-Speed Rail Authority's proposed plans will not only bypass their communities but also close down the Amtrak service on which their residents rely.

Earlier this year, however, Caltrans officials pledged to maintain Amtrak service on the existing corridor.

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