September 2011 Amtrak California Trip Report, Part II

Traveling The Web Of California Bus/Rail Connections
Report and Comments by Ralph James

II. Perspective from the Foothills

Given the difficulties of using Amtrak and Amtrak California between the foothills east of Sacramento and the Central Coast illustrated in the preceding trip report (Part I), what would acceptable service look like and how might it be incrementally developed? Equally important, how might acceptable service from the Sierra foothills to Fresno and Bakersfield be integrated into the matrix? Existing northbound and southbound options are not identical, but are similar enough that this commentary will examine only the weekday (M-F) southbound travel direction.

Living an hour and a half east of Sacramento on the I-80 corridor, Colfax would be our station of choice and Auburn (half way to Sacramento) would be a reasonable second choice. Driving all the way to Sacramento is highly undesirable due to distance, traffic and cost of parking, and would eliminate the usefulness of using rail for most trips shorter than to the Bay Area or beyond Fresno. A convenient level of service would consist generally of the following elements as a wish list:

1. Early morning train all the way to San Jose with direct bus to Central Coast
2. Connecting service to Coast Starlight
3. One or two mid-day connections, two transfers maximum
4. Late day overnight no-transfer train to coast and LA

Here are the 2011 travel options segment by segment:

Colfax-Sacramento: 3 buses
Auburn-Sacramento: 4 buses + 1 Capitol train
Sacramento-Oakland: 16 Capitol trains
Oakland-San Jose: 7 Capitol trains
Oakland/San Jose-Central Coast: 5 buses
Sacramento-Bakersfield: 4 buses to Stockton + 2 San Joaquin trains
Hanford-Central Coast: 2 buses

In addition to the Amtrak California services noted above, the California Zephyr serves Colfax (not Auburn) to Oakland (Emeryville) and the Coast Starlight serves Sacramento to the Central Coast. Sounds impressive until the segments that do not connect in a reasonable manner start to be eliminated. (Is this the “unmatrix” theory?)

For Central Coast travel the Amtrak long distance trains can be immediately eliminated because they mis-connect by about 16 hours and would require an overnight stay enroute. The California Zephyr mis-connects to the afternoon coastal bus by three hours at Oakland or requires a five hour layover for the all-night red-eye bus south.

The only train out of Auburn leaves at 6:35AM and mis-connects to the Starlight by an hour in Sacramento. It mis-connects by 40 minutes to the thru train to San Jose, which then requires an hour and a quarter layover for coastal connections. It would be timed perfectly to make the 11:25AM bus connection to the coast at San Jose, but that train terminates at Oakland so misses that opportunity completely. It does make a 20 minute connection to the Stockton bus to San Joaquin 712, which connects at Hanford to the morning coastal bus to Grover Beach. That routing still requires three transfers, but is a very reliable connection that I have personally used from time to time. It is not shown in the computer, it cannot be booked through Guest Rewards without a long discussion and two redemptions, and reservations agents do not recognize it for booking. As a result, nobody from the general public will ever find out about or use this very useful early morning routing to the Valley or coastal points.

The morning bus leaves Auburn at 10:35AM and makes direct connections with Capitol 537 at Sacramento. 537 makes direct connections to the coastal bus in San Jose. This is the ONLY option shown in the Amtrak computer for public booking and it happened to be the best fit for my travel needs for the trip just reported.

The early afternoon bus leaves Auburn at 2:00PM and makes direct connections with Capitol 543 to San Jose. Unfortunately there is no coastal connection available. If one is willing to make an hour and a half layover in Sacramento, there is a connection to San Joaquin train 704, which connects to the evening coastal bus at Hanford for a midnight arrival in Grover Beach. This option has one less bus segment and transfer, but since it is not shown in the Amtrak computer as a recognized routing the chance that a member of the general public will ever find or book it is near zero. This exact connection from Auburn to Fresno and other San Joaquin destinations is shown as a recognized routing, however, so it is just the connection to coastal points that is missing from the Amtrak computer.

The late afternoon bus leaves Auburn at 5:10PM. This schedule mis-connects to San Joaquin 704 and the last coastal connection by an hour and a half. Connecting train 549 only goes as far as Oakland, and requires an hour and a half layover at either Sacramento or Oakland to connect to the overnight coastal bus which takes six and a half hours to reach Grover Beach at 4:30AM. Although this combination is theoretically possible, the circumstances to book it would have to be extreme and I don’t blame Amtrak for not showing it as a viable option in the computer.

The last bus of the day leaves Auburn at 7:35PM and connects with Capitol 553 in Sacramento, which mis-connects with the overnight coastal bus by an hour at Oakland. The only option here is a six hour midnight layover for a five and a half hour bus ride to Grover Beach the next morning. This option can also be realistically eliminated for thru travel.

So, out of five Auburn departures, sixteen Capitol Corridor trains, five coastal connections and two long distance trains that could potentially serve Auburn and Grover Beach there is only one thru connection that is carded for sale. Two others via the San Joaquin routing can be constructed by those who are timetable-savvy and are willing to bypass computers and reservations agents who will insist that it is not possible. One of these alternatives is a close but very reliable connection in Sacramento and the other adds an extra hour and a half layover enroute. Every alternative involves more bus travel than train travel (some substantially more) and all require multiple transfers and waiting time for connections. Thru service on the otherwise exemplary Capitol Corridor presents itself as complex and quite unattractive to most potential travelers.

Some Short and Long Term Improvement Possibilities

The problems with thru travel over the Capitol Corridor are obviously not due to lack of frequency, but rather lack of connectivity, multiple transfers, long cumulative transfer times and long bus rides relative to train travel. Lack of appropriate marketing of available service options also keeps customers away.

Marketing should be addressed immediately as a zero cost improvement that takes advantage of every reasonable travel option that is already available, several of which are not listed in the Amtrak computer. Specific examples include:

1. Auburn early morning train 529 connecting to San Joaquin 712 bus in Sacramento for all Valley and Coastal destinations.
2. Auburn early afternoon bus connecting to Coastal destinations via San Joaquin 704 at Sacramento (currently only Valley destinations are listed)
3. Re-evaluate and adjust interline fare structure with San Joaquin route to align incentives with reality.
4. Yield management should place a premium on filling always-empty seats out of Auburn rather than penalize travelers who endure more than a two hour layover at Martinez by using train 529 to San Joaquin 714 instead of the later bus ($55 to Fresno vs. $31 for the much shorter bus trip)
5. Allow optional routing to San Joaquin via rail-to-rail transfer at Martinez or rail-to-bus-to-rail double transfer at Sacramento and Stockton at uniform lower thru fare (train 529 to San Joaquin 714 bus until connection to 712 bus is recognized).

Short to medium term improvements should be undertaken by making a serious effort to coordinate schedules between the Capitol, San Joaquin and Surfliner corridors. In effect, the entire distance from Reno to Sacramento to San Jose to Santa Barbara to Los Angeles to San Diego is a single travel corridor with a lightly-populated center section. With one exception, the specifics are much too complex to address here, but with many mis-connects being only about an hour there are certainly a number of other possibilities to explore.

1. Extend train 529 to San Jose instead of train 527. The difference is only 40 minutes, but this change would open the entire Capitol route to morning service from Auburn in addition to providing a four hour earlier coastal connection and currently the only possible thru service to the Central Coast requiring only a single transfer.
2. Medium to long term improvements should consider the following as a starting point: Add earlier morning departure from Auburn to connect with both the Coast Starlight and San Joaquin 702. Such a schedule in isolation would be problematic at present, but if implemented as an overnight departure from Reno could open reasonable markets not now served. It would also be possible to use thru equipment to/from San Joaquin 702 and 703 to open single-seat travel from Reno and the foothills to Bakersfield in addition to the Starlight connections both ways. This is a potentially large market that is not reasonably served at all by today’s schedules.
3. Extend the California Zephyr to Los Angeles overnight. This extension has long been on the RailPac wish list and would provide a single-seat ride from the foothills to the Central Coast, although at awkward early-morning hours for points short of Santa Barbara.
4. Craft additional planned Auburn service with thru connections in mind to both Valley and Coastal destinations, not just the Sacramento commuter market.
5. Once convenient travel options are implemented, market to the foothills to fill empty seats at the fringe and generate higher passenger-mile trips.

This Foothills Perspective is presented to highlight the difficulty that exists when attempting travel that starts or ends outside of the corridor core, despite copious service in the mid-section, and to suggest both simple and complex options to improve thru travel. The longer-term improvements suggested are, of course, highly speculative given today’s funding conditions and access issues to Union Pacific tracks.

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