The San Joaquins: California’s Overnight Trains?

By Noel T. Braymer

Many would love to be able to catch a train in the evening and wake up near their destination from one end of California to the next. This isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. There has been talk for years about extending a round trip San Joaquin over the Tehachapis overnight with with sleepers and lots of padding in the schedule. This is going nowhere as far as the UP is concerned. So what is the next best thing?

One of the issues with the San Joaquins is that their first trains in the morning out of Bakersfield arrive at their destination after the start of the business day. The 711 leaves Bakersfield at 4:55 AM and doesn’t get to Oakland until 11 AM. Its connecting bus at Stockton to Sacramento is a little better at 10:05 AM, but even that is after the start of the business day.

The next train, the 701 leaves Bakersfield at 7:15 AM, but doesn’t reach Sacramento until 12:30 in the afternoon, well past the start of the business day. The 701 connecting bus to Oakland doesn’t get there until 1:00 PM.

There are 2 buses used from Southern California for the 711 early in the morning. Most of the passenger riding the 711 out of Bakersfield are on those 2 buses which are often full. On the San Joaquins, the busiest station stop is Fresno which the 711 arrives at 6:50 AM and the 701 at 9:10 AM. The question is how to increase ridership on these trains by arriving at Oakland and Sacramento by the start of the business day to appeal to a larger market?

The obvious answer is to leave Bakersfield earlier to get to Oakland and Sacramento earlier. If the 711 left Bakersfield at 3 AM it could get into Oakland around 9 AM instead of 11 AM and its connecting bus into Sacramento by 8 AM instead of 11 AM. The obvious question is, who’s going to catch a train at 3 AM?

Most of the passengers who catch the 711 and 701 trains now out of Bakersfield come on the bus. The bus to the 711 from San Diego gets the largest share of its riders from San Diego. Since the bus starts in San Diego, passengers get on it at 10:15 PM. From Los Angeles on north, you rarely see more than one or two passengers and often none getting on this bus to Bakersfield. This bus leaves Los Angeles at 12:45 AM and makes its last stop at Newhall-Santa Clarita at 2:40 AM. A major factor for passengers riding the bus is catching it before or soon after midnight. This doesn’t seem to stop passengers from climbing out of the buses before 4:30 AM to wait to get on the 711 before it leaves at 4:55AM.

The 701 morning trip to Sacramento isn’t breaking records in ridership. It doesn’t get the level of bus transfers as the 711 and its afternoon arrival into Sacramento isn’t a major draw. Part of the problem is there is no bus service from southern Orange County or all of San Diego County. In Orange County the southern most bus for the 701 leaves Santa Ana at 3:00 AM.

Having the 701 arrive in Sacramento at 10:30 AM and not 12:30 PM would help ridership. This would mean departing Bakersfield at 5:15 AM and not 7:15 AM. That would give an arrival in Fresno by 7:10 AM and bus connections to Oakland by 10:50 AM. This could also mean bus service extended to San Diego at 11:10 PM and to Santa Ana by 1:00 AM. These changes would open up a much larger market for the 701. The 704 which leaves Sacramento at 4:55PM also doesn’t have bus service south of Santa Ana. But buses for the 718 from Oakland do go as far as San Diego and it bus from Sacramento leaves at 6:25 PM.

In the next year or 2 there are plans to run a 7th train between Oakland and Bakersfield on the San Joaquins. A 7th train will help fill in the gap caused by running the first 2 trains in the morning sooner. Running these 2 trains even at earlier times in the San Joaquin Valley will create new markets because of the of the earlier arrival times for a full day in both Sacramento and the Bay Area. Major airports are busy by 5 AM with people catching early flights to to get in a full day of business at their destination and return home that night. For passengers from Fresno and on north such earlier travel would be possible with earlier departures of these 2 trains.

In terms of ridership and revenue, the key is passenger miles and the number of markets a train serves. At least half of all San Joaquin passenger take at least one bus connection, many take more than one. Sacramento is a major San Joaquin Train Bus hub with riders transferring to many lines to places like Redding, Lake Tahoe, and Reno. With many such long distance passengers riding the San Joaquins by bus from the south and the north, they have a major impact on the train’s revenue since they buy more expensive tickets. It is also because of the bus connections that the San Joaquins have the highest percentage of occupied seats of the 3 California State Corridor Trains.

More can be done to get more passengers on the San Joaquins and the other State Corridor Trains. Better arrival and departure times with expanded bus connections is one element. It wouldn’t hurt if the early morning trains were treated more like a night trains. That includes low light levels and quiet announcements to let people sleep before 8:00 AM. Airlines and intercity bus companies base their ticketing on current demand and sell discount tickets when the have empty seats. California State Trains should start doing the same thing.

Flexible pricing with discounts when needed, better train and bus connections, arrival times for the business day along with service upgrades can increase train revenues, ridership and passenger satisfaction with out new major expenses. This should make almost everyone happy, except the competition.

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