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Steve Roberts


Overview of the March 27 San Joaquin JPA Board Meeting

Outlined below are some key takeaways I found noteworthy from the March 27th San Joaquin JPA Board meeting:
  1. The Fresno City and County presentation was an overview of the new 2-year pilot Thruway bus initiative linking Fresno with Yosemite National Park and Fresno with Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park.  This 2-year pilot project is CMAC funded grant.  Both services start Memorial Day weekend 2015.  Both services should be available through Amtrak.  The Fresno – Yosemite service will be operated by YARTS and utilize full size motor coaches.  Stops in Fresno with be Amtrak, Fresno Airport and Fresno State.  There would be five round-trips daily 365 days per year.  The $30 round-trip fare includes park admission.  The Fresno – Sequoia/Kings Canyon route will be operated by the local regional transit contractor and utilized 18 passenger vans.  Stops would be at Amtrak and the Fresno Airport.  There would be four round-trips daily 102 days a year (Memorial Day through Labor Day).  The $15 round-trip fare includes park admission.
  2. The SJJPA Board agreed to send letters of support for the three San Joaquin communities, Bakersfield, Stockton and Merced, that applied for Sustainable Communities Grant Applications under the new Cap and Trade funding program.
  3. SJJPA Board approved grant applications under the Cap and Trade Intercity Rail Capital Projects section.  For major projects (projects greater than $3 million) recommended was the BNSF Stockton – Escalon double track segment 4 (5.7 miles MP 1106.8 – 1116.3).  This project is ready for construction, complements Stockton – Escalon segments already completed or underway, and results in run-time savings and the free flow of freight trains that no longer have to stop and idle to meet passenger trains.  It would also facilitate the addition of an 8thround-trip to the route.  For minor projects (under $3 million) recommended was a fare program designed to target lower income San Joaquin Valley residents.  This would be a 3-year program.  It was noted that for many years Kings County has had a special program for its residents – county purchased 10-ride tickets are used by residents for shopping, medical and legal trips on the San Joaquin’s.\
  4. The legislature has appropriated funds for CHSRA planning work for the Sacramento – Merced route segment.  As part of this study, staff would work with CHSRA to include “early action” San Joaquin route investments to improve connectivity between northern San Joaquin Valley communities and CHSRA’s Initial Operating Segment.
  5. The framework of the Interagency Transfer agreement is basically completed.  The two key outstanding issues are liability and equipment.  Also the San Joaquin budget needs to be finalized with up-dated Amtrak costs.  The goal is to have all documents completed by the end of May for submission to CalSTA.  To provide more time in case the SJJPA Board has any issues with the final document, the May Board meeting has been moved to May 15th.  Also being discussed with Caltrans is the specific process for the payment transfer beginning in July.
  6. Brian Schmidt, SJJPA Operations, indicated that the proposed 14 train rotation (compared to today’s 15) would not work without a major change to current schedules (which would negatively impact their marketability).  Unless they can come up with a new solution or reduce consist size from 5-cars to 4-cars (either option are unlikely), the Comet Car trainset will continue to operate on the San Joaquin route.  It was suggested that the SJJPA push hard for the first trainset of new cars be assigned to the San Joaquin route.  Mr. Schmidt also reported that BNSF track work negatively impacted San Joaquin on-time performance in January and February.  Two of three projects are completed and the third will be completed within the next week.  Staff is working with the UP and BNSF on slotting for the 7th frequency which should be starting in the Fall.  Track improvements completed or underway for the 7th frequency should reduce run times by 15-20 minutes.
  7. The recommendation for the SJJPA to send a letter (see below) to Caltrans regarding San Joaquin revenue management policy generated a lively discussion on the subject.  Since the day of the meeting also corresponded to a peak travel day for college students leaving for spring break, the discussion actually started early during the public comment period with members of the audience commenting on the high fares they paid to travel to the meeting and changes in fares they observed during the booking process.  Clem Bomar, retired Caltrans Division of Rail manager, provided some background on the operational reasons (elimination of standees, shifting customers to less full trains, improved equipment utilization, improved motor coach assignments, etc.) for making the San Joaquin’s reserved.  In a separate conversation with Dan Leavitt I added that another reason Caltrans engaged in revenue management was to increase ticket revenues to better meet budget expectations.  The Board acknowledged, as a body, the need to determine the benefits of revenue management and how it works.  They requested that staff set up a workshop with Amtrak’s Revenue Management Department.  In the meantime they agreed to staff’s suggestion to send the letter to Caltrans requesting a meeting and perhaps making some near-term changes in fare inventory levels.
March 27, 2015
Letter to State Regarding Changes to San Joaquin Fare Policy
The San Joaquin service ticketing is done by reservation. Passengers reserve a seat
on a specific San Joaquin train. Amtrak’s fare management policy on the San Joaquin’s
is to increase the standard “value” fares as the San Joaquin trains start to reach
capacity. In a recent meeting with Amtrak, Caltrans, and CalSTA, SJJPA staff has
learned that under their current practice, Amtrak begins raising the San Joaquin prices
once the train is shown to be 60% full. SJJPA staff was told that they have five levels of
fare increase, and as the trains continue to fill up, the fares continue to rise. The
highest level of increase can be about twice as much as the initial fare offered. Since
the San Joaquin’s have a very limited frequency of service a significant cost increase on
any of the trains may result in a decrease in ridership.
San Joaquin ridership has been below expectations for the last year and a half. Higher
fares could be contributing to depressed ridership on the San Joaquin’s. Staff
recommends sending a letter to Caltrans requesting that they adjust their policy so that
the San Joaquin trains are much closer to capacity before they begin to raise the fares
As part of the SJJPA Business Plan, the SJJPA committed to working with Amtrak to
investigate moving the San Joaquin’s back to unreserved ticketing (like the Capitol
Corridor and Pacific Surfliner). After the administrative responsibilities have been
transferred, the SJJPA will explore with Amtrak the “tradeoffs between reserved and
unreserved ticketing, including if the benefits outweigh the impacts” (SJJPA Business
Plan Update, CH 9, page 38). Nevertheless, action could be taken now by Caltrans, to
adjust their fare management policy which could help stimulate San Joaquin ridership.
Fiscal Impact:
No Fiscal Impact at this time.
Approve draft letter to Caltrans for signature by the Chairperson