It’s official: the San Joaquin Valley Amtrak line is now managed locally, with Kings County getting a seat at the table.
As of June 29, the Stockton-based San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority has taken control over Amtrak’s San Joaquin Valley train service, considered the fifth-busiest Amtrak corridor in the U.S. with 1.2 million passengers a year.
The new agency is headed by a 10-member board of directors. Each director represents a different agency and county. The Kings County Association of Governments is represented by Supervisor Doug Verboon, with Hanford Mayor Russ Curry as the alternate.
Caltrans formerly ran the San Joaquin line from Sacramento, with local agencies frequently complaining that they lacked a strong voice at the table.
Now, with the new organization in place, Kings and surrounding counties are in a position to directly push for improvements to the line, which remains a transportation alternative for many local travelers.
Interviews with passengers at the Hanford Amtrak station and comments to the Sentinel’s Facebook page reveal a variety of perspectives on Amtrak.
“I would like something out of Bakersfield to go straight to the coast,” said a Bakersfield resident who identified herself only as Pat. She was referring to the fact that the train stops in Bakersfield, with southbound travelers loading into buses from there.
“I’d like to get more business inside here,” said Hanford resident Debra Ellis as she waited at the Hanford station Tuesday for a train to Corcoran.
Ellis said she’d like to see snack and/or drink vending machines in the station.
Maria de Jesus Guzman-Galante said she wants pets allowed onboard trains. Jason LeaRue requested “less vagrants around the station.” Krystle McWells suggested “more staff” working at the station.
Colorado resident Vicki Warner-Huggins, sitting near Ellis Tuesday afternoon, wondered why there weren’t advertisements for local businesses on the walls. She noted that many people waiting for a train could walk outside and buy something.
As for complaints, she said that Amtrak “doesn’t always run on time” – a frequent experience for regular riders.
“That’s more of an issue with freight [trains] than with Amtrak,” Warner-Huggins said.
She highlighted the fact that Amtrak operates by permission on tracks owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe. BNSF freight trains take precedence, causing unanticipated delays in passenger service.
Verboon said there’s no way to really put a dent in the problem short of spending tens of millions to double track the entire Stockton-to-Bakersfield route. He said that funding for such a project isn’t available (Caltrans retains control of the funding).
He did say other improvements are within reach.
Verboon said that the agency will receive new double-decker train cars as early as spring 2016. One of the complaints has been that the San Joaquin line has received the worst equipment while Sacramento, the Bay Area and Los Angeles get the best stuff.
“We were getting the short end of the stick, you might say,” said Terri King, executive director of the Kings County Association of Governments.
Verboon said the agency is looking at adding at least one more round trip to the eight that run daily on the line. He said the new train would start somewhere in the middle of the route – say, in Fresno – and run north or south.
That could provide morning commuter service as well as allow somebody in Hanford to get an earlier start on trips to Los Angeles, Sacramento or the Bay Area.
“The people in the middle need to get to their jobs earlier in the day,” Verboon said. “That’s been brought to the board’s attention.”
However, according to King, local Amtrak service is likely to remain oriented toward distance travelers rather than commuters who need exact arrival times.
“This route is a long-distance route,” King said.
Kings said that forming the regional agency gives the Valley more power to lobby for money in Sacramento and Washington D.C. for local Amtrak improvements.
“We have a stronger voice now, belonging to the [joint powers authority] versus what we had in Sacramento,” said Hanford Mayor Russ Curry.