Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Solano's Passenger Railroad Revival May Be Key in a Congested Future

Solano's Passenger Railroad Revival May Be Key in a Congested Future
By Barry Eberling

SUISUN CITY - Dawnelda Scott is among those reaping benefits from the Solano County passenger railroad revival that began 15 years ago today.

Scott recently stood at the Suisun City station platform at 7:35 a.m. She needed to get to Richmond so she could catch BART and continue on to her job. She left the driving to the Capitol Corridor trains, which travel between Sacramento and San Jose.

"It's a good opportunity to kick back a little, read a book, let someone handle the trials and tribulations of commuting, get that quality time for yourself," Scott said, white gloves and a black coat protecting her against the early morning chill.

Railroad revival? Make that railroad revolution. The Capitol Corridor service has as many trains zipping along its lines as the famed northeast corridor between Boston and New York.

"At the times people want to travel, we have a train available," said Eugene Skoropowski, managing director of the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority.

Oscar Valenzuela of Fairfield takes the train to Davis to attend the University of California, Davis. He can choose between six eastbound trips in the morning.

"The bus has inconvenient hours," Valenzuela said as he sat on a bench inside the station. "To go to Davis, they only have two buses. One is at 6:55 a.m. The other is at noon."

But the railroad revolution started slowly Dec. 12, 1991. The very first Capitol Corridor train pulled up to a then-ramshackle Suisun-Fairfield station at 8 a.m. for its only westbound morning visit. Only eight people waited in the fog and entered cars about one-third full.

"There are quite a few people for the first day," said Amtrak conductor Gene Springer, who wore a dark-blue uniform and collected ticket money.

Optimism was the name of the game. After all, the state had launched the service with a splash. Only the previous day, it had run a ceremonial train for dignitaries only along the line, complete with balloons and Dixieland jazz band, to drum up interest.

Former Assemblyman Tom Hannigan of Fairfield rode that ceremonial train and recalled how the Capitols got started. A constituent came to his office in the 1980s and said that rail line between Sacramento and San Jose could be used for passenger service, as well as freight.

"I did what any politician would do: I suggested we do a study," Hannigan said 15 years ago.

That study concluded the rail line should work. But the Capitals took awhile to pick up speed.

By 1994, the service averaged between 20,000 and 30,000 passengers a month, far short of the goal of 42,000 passengers. Only 1,400 people used the Suisun City station each month, making it the least-frequented station on the route. The service offered only three round-trips daily.

Things have changed. The Capitols on their 15th birthday have record ridership that tops 100,000 passengers a month, with more than 120,000 riding in October. More than 7,000 passengers use the Suisun City station monthly. The service offers 16 roundtrips daily.

The turnabout came when the Capitols started adding more trains, Skoropowski said. In the beginning, there was just that one train in the morning. Passengers, fittingly enough, called it "the morning train."

Then came the "early morning" train and the "late-morning train," also known as the "slackers' train," Skoropowski said. When the Capitols added a seventh round trip in 2000, ridership rose 40 percent and there were too many trains for the regular riders to honor with nicknames.

Suddenly, the Capitols had enough trains that commuters, as well as casual travelers, could use the service. The railroad revolution had reached critical mass.

Jim Spering was Suisun City's mayor in 1991 and has just left the post to become a county supervisor in January 2007. He believes the Capitols made a difference for his city.

"It has brought people to our downtown," he said. "We're starting to see people who ride that train get off in Suisun. It's given our community a lot of exposure."

The Capitols coincidentally arrived just as Suisun City launched its waterfront and Old Town renovation efforts. Old, decrepit buildings got razed and a public marina got built. Among the first projects was the renovation of the century-old train depot.

"The timing was perfect," Spering said. "We wanted to restore the train station, so that certainly helped justify that."

Despite all the Capitol Corridor's success stories - despite the 1.2 million passengers annually and the cities along the line clamoring to have stations - it has had only minimal effect on the daily commute. The U.S. Census shows that less than 1 percent of Bay Area commuters in 2005 took the train. For Solano County, the figure was .1 percent.

But Spering is looking to the future. Interstate 80 won't be widened, except for car pool lanes, he said.

"It's going to get more congested," Spering said. "In time, people will need an alternative form of transportation."

The Capitols are up and running, he said. More trains can be added, he said.

"Transportation is generally behind the demand," Spering said. "We're trying to put some things in place that meet that future demand."

Solano County had its first railroad revolution in 1868, when the California Pacific Railroad laid down tracks and ran the first local trains. Suisun City, Dixon, Benicia and Elmira all got stations in subsequent years. People suddenly had a new travel option, in addition to boat and horse.

Trains remained a major form of transportation for decades. But after the state highway came through the area in 1915, autos gradually grew popular. Passenger trains faded.

Now they're back to help ease the pressure on congested freeways. The Capitols are leading the local railroad revival - and the new railroad revolution.

Reach Barry Eberling at 425-4646 Ext. 232 or at beberling@dailyrepublic.net.

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