By Noel T. Braymer
Bakersfield is finding itself on the losing side when it comes to getting rail passenger service in the San Joaquin Valley. Current plans for the Initial Operating Segment (IOS) of High Speed Rail in the San Joaquin Valley calls for service ending in the south several miles north of Bakersfield at Wasco. Recently the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority (SJJPA) announced they are adding service from Fresno to Sacramento at the same time they are eliminating one train from Bakersfield to Sacramento. One of the odd things about Bakersfield which is in Kern County is the county is not a voting member of the SJJPA board. Of course its representative in Congress is Kevin McCarthy who is an opposition leader against High Speed Rail construction. Kern County is both a major oil production center and has some of the worst air quality in the United States. But Bakersfield is also a major hub for connecting buses with Amtrak trains to Las Vegas and much of Southern California.
None of this seems to be a concern of the Kern Council of Governments (KCG) which is the planning body for Kern County which doesn’t bother to be a part of the SJJPA. Kern County is focused on road construction not rail service. Ahron Hakimi, executive director of KCG was reported saying the trains are slower than driving and have trouble being on time. Clearly he doesn’t ride the San Joaquin trains very often. The San Joaquin trains are the fastest passenger trains in California with an average speed of about 53 miles per hour between Bakersfield and Sacramento.The main problem for travelers is service isn’t frequent enough by train, particularly the two current roundtrip trains to Sacramento. The trains now leave Sacrament early in the morning and late in the afternoon.The trains arrive in Sacramento almost mid day and late in the afternoon. There are 5 other San Joaquin trains that travel to Oakland which also have bus connections at Stockton to Sacramento. But what is missing are arrivals into Sacramento at the start of the business day and convenient departures in the early evenings. Peak travel times in most places are morning, midday and late afternoon to early evening.
At the heart of the problem getting rail passenger service, but particularly in the San Joaquin Valley is money, or rather the lack there of. Economically the San Joaquin Valley is on a per capita basis is one of the poorest regions in the country. The San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission (SJRRC) in San Joaquin County is in charge of the Altamont Corridor Express commuter rail service between Stockton and San Jose. The SJRRC also manages the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority (SJJPA) which means it is in charge of planning future service for the Amtrak San Joaquin Trains. The SJRRC is busy planning ACEforward which proposes to extend ACE service to first to Modesto and shortly there after to Merced . ACE recently secured funding for this in the State Budget. ACEforward also calls for connections to BART in Livermore as well as with the Capitol Corridor trains at Fremont. This also includes more frequent rail service for ACE. For the San Joaquin trains there are plans to raise train speeds. This will require track upgrades which have been awaiting funding for quite some time now. At the SJJPA, planning is going ahead to run additional service to Sacramento starting with a early morning arrival at Sacramento by 8 AM which will be the train that skips Bakersfield and leaves Fresno around 4:30 AM. There is a planned bus connection as far as Bakersfield leaving at 2 AM to Fresno. It would make sense to start this northbound bus in the evening in Southern California which has a large market to add riders to the Fresno connection to Sacramento. While there may be more people riding from Fresno and points north, much of the revenue for transportation is from the distance people travel.
The planning for adding rail service to Sacramento includes shifting the train route to Sacramento from the Fresno subdivision to the Sacramento subdivision. The Fresno sub is a busy Union Pacific mainline while there is plenty of unused capacity on the Sacramento sub. The downside with the Sacramento sub is it has no connections to the Amtrak Station in Sacramento. The planning calls for additional stations including in downtown Sacramento, North Sacramento and Natomas which is north of Sacramento for a bus connection to the Sacramento Airport. Along with expanded San Joaquin service to Sacramento there are plans to run an ACE DMU self propelled railcar train as a shuttle between Stockton and Sacramento with connections to ACE trains and possibly San Joaquin trains. At the heart of the planning of the SJJPA, ACE and SJRRC which are basically the same people wearing 3 hats is to create a system serving as a connector to future High Speed Rail service. This will give better connections along the northern San Joaquin Valley including Sacramento to High Speed Rail at San Jose, Madera and Merced. The San Joaquin trains will connect to High Speed Rail at a joint station at Madera while ACE will connect at both San Jose and Merced.
Where does this leave Bakersfield? Behind the 8 ball for now. Planning of the route for High Speed Rail to downtown Bakersfield was delayed for years until the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) agreed to use the route along the Union Pacific preferred by the city of Bakersfield instead of on the BNSF. The advantage of the UP route is there were fewer people opposing use of this route compared to a joint HSR station with the San Joaquin trains along the BNSF. One might say the area along the UP is economically depressed compared to the BNSF side of town. Relations between Bakersfield and the CHSRA have improved since most of attention for the High Speed Rail station is now focused on the UP route. But because of this delay Bakersfield has largely taken itself out of contention as a site for the future HSR central maintenance facility in the San Joaquin Valley. The indifference of the Kern Council of Governments about rail passenger service in Kern county doesn’t help either. For years the cities of Fresno, Merced and Bakersfield have wanted to have the central maintenance facility built in their tax base because it will be one of the largest employment centers in the San Joaquin Valley.
A case could be made that Bakersfield has shot itself in the foot several times when it comes to rail passenger service. But this misses the point that for rail service to work in California we need good service at Bakersfield. The disadvantage is there will be no connections between High Speed Rail and and San Joaquin trains in Bakersfield unless the San Joaquin Trains are shifted to the UP Line south of Wasco. Not only would this be expensive, but it would mean leaving the fairly new Bakersfield train station which is closer to the center of Bakersfield than the future UP High Speed Rail station. Time will tell, but as the towns in the northern San Joaquin Valleys see increased development and economic growth with improved rail service, Bakersfield will likely get to work to catch up.