Sunday, February 24, 2008

Train seats getting scarce Long-haul intercity trains can hardly meet demand

Train seats getting scarce
Long-haul intercity trains can hardly meet demand
By Erik N. Nelson, STAFF WRITER
Article Created: 02/22/2008 02:46:44 AM PST

SACRAMENTO — While most of their co-workers were still snug in their beds, about 60 of the Bay Area's hardiest commuters milled about the platform at Sacramento's Amtrak station, waiting to board the Capitol Corridor's first train of the day.

After a few minutes, the doors opened on Train 521, and the bleary-eyed travelers climbed aboard.

With a departure time of 4:30 a.m., it's known as the Oh-My-God Train.

"It's a quiet train. If you walk through the train, a lot of people are asleep," said Betty Digilio, a 45-year-old Sacramento resident who starts work at 6:30 a.m. at the East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland.

It's not as quiet as Eugene Skoropowski expected, however. As the Capitol Corridor's managing director, he launched the early run in 2006 thinking it might be popular with San Jose-bound commuters boarding in Oakland, where it arrives at the more human time of 6:21 a.m.

But a year-and-a-half later, about a third of the train's average of 140 to 180 passengers board in Sacramento, and those numbers keep climbing at all times of the day.

The Corridor and California's two other intercity rail lines, the San Joaquins from Oakland to Bakersfield and the Pacific Surfliner trains from San Diego to San Luis Obispo, carry 20 percent of Amtrak's nationwide passengers.

While ridership on those California routes has grown 43 percent to 5 million annual trips in 2007, vehicle miles in the state have gone up only 8 percent, and
the population has risen 11 percent. State funding for this fast-growing sector has not kept pace, however.

So five hours after Train 521 departed, Oakland-basedSkoropowski was also in Sacramento, sitting down with legislators and officials from the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority and their counterparts who run the other two railroads.

A daylong series of meetings and events calls attention to the fact that as travelers and commuters clamor for seats on their trains, officials struggle to expand service to meet that demand.

Since a voter-approved bond jump-started the Capitol Corridor in 1990, the line has received only sporadic capital funding from state coffers averaging only about $578,000 a year.

"We have worked very hard with the dollars that have been given to us," said Forrest Williams, a San Jose city councilman who chairs the joint powers authority that governs the Capitol Corridor, "but we have reached that point where we cannot expand any more" without compromising service.

Some relief is in the works from a new state-wide transportation bond, which will pump $400 million into intercity rail improvements. Last year the Legislature budgeted $187 million of that, of which $150 million will pay for six new trains — two for each of the three rail routes.

To keep pace with burgeoning demand, officials said they will need a stable source of income such as the state program that helps maintain local streets and roads. The fund should start at about $55 million a year and rise at the same rate as ridership, they argued.

The rail advocates are also backing the development of a fourth line, starting with one train a day, that provide the "missing link" between the Capitol Corridor's terminus in San Jose and the Pacific Surfliner's northernmost station in San Luis Obispo.

Robert Oakes, transportation policy aide to Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, said that while the senator always has been supportive of intercity rail, he was surprised to hear of standing-room-only trains.

"That's really good news, but you don't want to scare people away," he said. "It's one thing to stand on BART. It's another thing to stand for an hour and a half on the Capitol Corridor."

Contact Erik Nelson at or 510-208-6410 and read the Capricious Commuter blog at

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