It’s been nearly a half century since the last passenger trains cut through midtown Sacramento, dropping riders off at the sprawling depot that’s now an Old Spaghetti Factory restaurant.
Those trains may soon return in dramatic fashion if a group of Central Valley train officials get their way. The San Joaquin passenger train service wants to bring Amtrak trains from southern valley cities into Sacramento on the tracks between 19th and 20th streets.
The trains would have several new passenger stops, including one in the heart of midtown near Q Street, a half-block from Safeway and three blocks from light-rail connections. The other would be in North Natomas, where a shuttle bus would take passengers directly to Sacramento International Airport.
The service could start as soon as 2020 with at least one daily train in each direction, connecting business and political travelers more easily to the state Capitol and offering valley residents an alternative way to get to the airport, said Dan Leavitt, an executive with the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority.
That group consists of representatives from cities and counties between Bakersfield and Sacramento.
Passenger trains through midtown would create an obvious downside – more delays for drivers at several dozen street crossings. The trains, though, are generally with five to seven cars, far shorter than the freight trains, some 100 cars long, that trundle through the central city. Those freight trains would continue to use that line, sharing it with passenger trains, under the plan.
Leavitt contends the benefits of the proposed line far outweigh the added car delays, especially for Valley residents who have business in Sacramento.
“We’re getting people out of their cars and promoting a lifestyle that fits where Sacramento and California are going,” he said. “It’s bumper-to-bumper weekdays on Highway 99 and I-5. With the train, you can be more productive, you can be doing business on the train.”
The tracks through midtown once were a main passenger route through the state. The midtown station at J Street opened as the Western Pacific Railroad passenger depot in 1910. The original California Zephyr train ran on the line for more than two decades until 1970.
The rail proposal represents a major move by San Joaquin train officials to expand their now limited service in Sacramento and an attempt to gain more ridership. The rail line has seen annual ridership drop from a peak of 1.2 million two years ago to 1.1 million recently. It has a low profile in the capital city compared to a similar train service, the Capitol Corridor, which runs between Sacramento and the Bay Area.
“A lot of Sacramentans aren’t even aware of this service,” Leavitt said of the San Joaquin train.
Currently, two San Joaquin trains run daily between Bakersfield and Sacramento on another rail line that curves around the eastern and northern edges of the central city, avoiding intersections and dropping passengers off at the Amtrak depot at Fourth and I streets. Those trains arrive near midday and in the evening, however, missing peak business travel hours.
The agency has not been able to add trains to Sacramento on that line on the fringe of the central city because track owner Union Pacific needs it for heavy freight trains. As a result, most San Joaquin passengers headed to Sacramento board buses in Stockton to finish their trip.
UP, however, has indicated extra capacity exists on the “Sacramento subdivision” line that runs through the center of midtown, Leavitt said. His agency now sees that line as the key, he said, to making its service more relevant in Sacramento.
Leavitt’s group has won conceptual support from several key players locally, including Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents midtown and has frequently argued that the rail line should be removed so that cars, including police and fire vehicles, aren’t delayed by trains.
Hansen, however, said it’s unlikely that rail line will be removed anytime soon. He said he supports adding passenger trains in exchange for San Joaquin officials paying for improvements along the rail line, possibly including bike and pedestrian paths. “This is an opportunity for us to get needed improvements along what is essentially a scar through the city,” Hansen said.
North Natomas Councilwoman Angelique Ashby said she supports the proposal as well, saying the line could connect with the local Natomas shuttle and offer residents of her community a quick ride to downtown jobs. “This is the type of transit that opens opportunities to people to choose where they want to live,” she said.
She said she’s also pleased about the possibility of making better, non-car connections to the airport in the next few years. Sacramento Regional Transit has long planned a light-rail line from downtown to the airport, but that $1 billion project remains elusive – unfunded with no timetable for getting built.
Steve Roberts, a representative with the Rail Passenger Association of California, points to one notable downside. While some San Joaquin trains would continue to use the existing line that takes them to the downtown depot, new trains on the midtown line would not connect to the Amtrak depot at Fourth and I streets. But, he said, his group favors any additional train service. “The world is not perfect,” he said. “You have to make tradeoffs.”
Notably, Union Pacific officials say they have not yet given their OK to add passenger trains on that line, which carries 12 to 20 freight trains a day.
“No new passenger service has formally been agreed to,” UP spokesman Justin Jacobs said in an email to The Bee. “At this point, we have just been asked to study the feasibility of additional passenger service on the (line). Until that study is complete, we are not able to comment on our ability to host any new service within the corridor or details on potential station locations.”
Money also will be a major factor. Early estimates put the cost at up to $189 million, much of it for construction of new rail platforms for train stops near Lodi, Elk Grove, midtown Sacramento, north Sacramento and Natomas.
The San Joaquin group is conducting a cost analysis and doing ridership projections to submit a funding application to the state for transportation grants in the coming months, Leavitt said.
In the short-term, San Joaquin officials plan to switch their evening train next year to an early train, originating from Fresno at 4:30 a.m. (instead of Bakersfield) and arriving in Sacramento at about 7:45 a.m.