By Barry Eberling
SUISUN CITY - Mark Ogden is happy to take the Capitol Corridor trains and avoid congested freeways and high gas prices.
Ogden started taking the train about three months ago from Suisun City to Sacramento. There, he rides his bike two miles to his job at an architectural firm. The firm pays for mass transit rides.
He gets some exercise, avoids the stress of driving and contributes less car emissions to the air, Ogden said. But the main reason he started riding the trains was the high gas prices, he said.
"It makes a lot of sense," Ogden said.
The Capitol Corridors are on a roll. The service sells tickets for about 100,000 trips a month - the busiest it's been in its 14-year history. Ridership is up 8.1 percent from the previous year.
High gas prices are one reason for the ridership increase, said Richard Silver of the Rail Passenger Association of California. Gas prices - even more than traffic congestion - will get travelers out of their cars and into trains, he said.
There's also the increase in train service, said Eugene Skoropowski, the managing director for the Capitol Corridors Joint Powers Authority. In 2003, service increased from nine to 12 round trips each weekday on most of the line.
"It's frequent enough to be real transportation and not just to ride a train," Skoropowski said.
Keeping the trains on time
Eastbound and westbound trains arrive at the Suisun City station hourly during the morning and evening rush hours. Compare that to December 1991, when the service started. Eastbound and westbound trains each arrived at Suisun City once in the morning, afternoon and evening.
The Capitols wants to keep riders, once they give the service a try. One of the key factors is making sure the trains run on time.
Trains in recent months have been punctual about 85 percent of the time, with a dip to 73 percent in October because of track improvements being made in the San Jose area. The goal is 92 percent.
For six consecutive months starting in October 2004, the trains on-time rate topped 90 percent, Skoropowski said. Then a major levee broke in the Delta, flooding land and diverting freight trains to the Capitols tracks. Union Pacific made changes to the dispatching system.
"You have a series of things that made it go downhill," Skoropowski said.
But that six-month run shows what can be done, he said.The 7:33 a.m. Sacramento-bound train arrived at 7:44 a.m. on a recent morning when Ogden waited for it. He's philosophical about the occasional delay, noting that could happen on the freeway with traffic.
"The way I'm looking at it, I'm getting 40 minutes on the train to work on my laptop or catch up on reading," Ogden said. "I feel like I'm gaining time in my day."
There are plans to improve train service. In Skoropowski's words, "We've only scratched the surface."
A true commuter service?
One proposal is to have trains arrive every half-hour during rush hours, creating a true commuter service. Commuter trains would take riders westbound riders as far as Oakland. They would take eastbound riders as far as Sacramento.
Although the extra trains wouldn't officially be Capitol Corridor trains, riders wouldn't notice the difference, Skoropowski said. It would all appear to be one service.
New train stations are planned for Fairfield/Vacaville, Dixon and Benicia. The Fairfield/Vacaville stop could open at Peabody and Vanden roads in 2010.
Each new station is supposed to be matched by track improvements to speed the trains up. The goal is to have no net loss in the trip time, despite the extra stops.
The Capitols is also on a roll when it comes to paying its own way. The train and related bus service recover about 43 percent of their $37 million annual operating cost from fares, an all-time high.
He has no reservations about the service's ability to get to a 50 percent farebox recovery rate, Skoropowski said.
"The key is to get more service to San Jose, to get the additional riders in that marketplace," Skoropowski said.
Fares for the Capitol Corridors have risen over the years, but not dramatically. A round trip to from Suisun City to Oakland cost $15 in 1991, or about $21.30 when adjusted for inflation.
Today, it costs $22.
The goal is to raise fares slowly over time, rather than holding off to the last minute and raising them steeply, Skoropowski said. This gradual approach hurts customers less, he said.
Riders can pay less for tickets by using the frequent rider rates.
Still a rare option
Despite its record-setting ridership, the Capitols have yet to make a dramatic difference in the Solano County commute. Only about .1 percent of county commuters take the train, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
"You're just creaming the top right now," Silver said.
But doing such things as adding a true commuter train service could make a dent in the I-80 congestion, he said. Now is the time to add such services, while gas prices are high, he said.
Dennis Gruber and his wife on a recent morning rode the train from Sacramento to Suisun City. Gruber praised the service.
"It's clean, it's efficient and it's cheap," said Gruber, who was visiting from Spain.
That's the kind of review the Capitols need if they are going to keep on growing.
Reach Barry Eberling at 425-4646 Ext. 232 or at email@example.com.
Capitol Corridor Train Facts
- Trains run along a 170-mile long corridor, from Auburn to San Jose. They stop at 16 stations.
- The Capitols have 1.2 million passengers annually. This makes it the third-busiest Amtrak route in the nation.
- Suisun City has the only stop in Solano County. About 350 passengers use the station on an average weekday and about 116,000 annually.
- It takes about 46 minutes to ride from the Suisun City station to the Richmond BART station.
- It takes about 53 minutes to ride from the Suisun City station to Sacramento.