Big Valley

Forty trains a day through Altamont at up to 125 mph? It could happen, weary drivers

Passenger rail service could increase 10-fold over Altamont Pass – enticing news for people who drive it daily from the Modesto area.

Rail planners are seeking funding for a 3.5-mile tunnel at the pass and other upgrades that would reduce travel times to Bay Area jobs. They envision 30 daily round trips at up to 125 miles per hour as soon as 2026, and 40 trips at some later date.

The improvements would benefit the Altamont Corridor Express, which runs four round trips each weekday between Stockton and San Jose and will launch Saturday service Sept. 7. ACE already has funding for branches to Stanislaus, Merced and Sacramento counties in the next few years.

The tunnel also would serve the proposed Valley Link rail system between the Dublin BART station and Stockton. It would share three stations with ACE and have other stations to itself in Livermore, Mountain House, Tracy and Lathrop.

ACE and Valley Link aim to lure a good portion of the 80,000-plus people who drive to Bay Area jobs from the Northern San Joaquin Valley. They also could serve non-peak travelers who would rather relax in a train seat than stare at the pavement ahead.

“Yes! About time we joined the rest of the developed world and invested in fast, reliable public transportation,” Elki Issa responded when The Modesto Bee broached the topic on Facebook. “Give our congested roads a break, and allow both commuters and leisure travelers to get to places quickly and safely.”

Some Facebook commenters worried that the project would go the way of the state’s high-speed rail system. It was supposed to run at up to 220 miles per hour between Northern and Southern California. Delays and cost overruns to $80 billion prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom to call for just a Merced-Bakersfield segment for now. Part of it is under construction.

Slow trains through pass

ACE has run since 1998 on a route used also by Union Pacific Railroad freight trains. It’s a single track for most of the 86 miles, with few overpasses where roads intersect. The route has many curves in its hilly stretches, further slowing the trip.

The cost estimate is $1.1 billion for the Altamont tunnel and 5.1 miles of new track that ACE and Valley Link would share along the pass.

They have asked that it be included in a $100 billion transportation tax measure that could be on November 2020 ballots in the nine Bay Area counties. Details on the type of tax and its duration are still being discussed.

ACE also is seeking $200 million from that measure to upgrade other Bay Area tracks so its service can expand to six round trips on weekdays by 2026.

These projects are key first steps in a grand vision for the next decade or two, said Dan Leavitt, manager of regional initiatives for ACE. The goal is a double-tracked system entirely separate from freight trains, with much fewer curves and less interference from road traffic.

Eventually, the upgrades could roughly halve the Stockton-San Jose travel time. It is now 2 hours, 12 minutes if the train is on schedule.

The entire Altamont Corridor Vision, as it’s called, is expected to cost about $9.7 billion.

This includes about $2.5 billion to boost capacity in the flat stretch from Fremont to San Jose, allowing ACE to reach 10 daily round trips. The cost could be shared with other rail systems using parts of this track – Caltrain up the San Francisco Peninsula and the Capitol Corridor to Sacramento.

ACE also envisions a four-mile tunnel through the hills just east of Fremont, where the curves rival those at Altamont. And it would like to replace its diesel locomotives with an electrified system, further increasing the speeds.

ACE in turn could tie into other grand plans for Bay Area train travel. They include possible revival of the Dumbarton rail bridge from the Fremont area to Redwood City, where trains would continue north to San Francisco.

Valley Link

Valley Link is an entirely new service being planned by the Tri-Valley/San Joaquin Valley Regional Rail Authority.

Part of the line would be in the Interstate 580 median between Dublin and a new station shared with ACE at Greenville Road in Livermore.

The two systems would share the new tunnel and nearby track on the pass, but Valley Link would have its own track in most of the Tracy-Lathrop area.

Valley Link is expected to cost $1.8 billion. The planners already have $400 million from an Alameda County sales tax measure, $188 million from bridge tolls in the region, and $40 million in impact fees from developers.

The other $1.17 billion could come from state and federal rail programs, future developer fees, businesses benefiting from the system, and future sales taxes, said Michael Tree, the authority’s executive director.

Service could start in 2026 with 24 trains a day between Dublin and north Lathrop. It could later be extended to the Stockton ACE station and reach 30 trips a day.

Valley Link planners project a 73-minute ride on the 41 miles of track between Dublin and north Lathrop. A car can get there faster, but not in the frequent congestion on Interstates 580 and 205.

“The travel times on Valley Link are competitive with current commuter traffic and will be more advantageous over time as congestion increases,” Tree said.

He added that Valley Link would save money by using existing rights of way. They include the 580 median, where BART once planned an expansion to Livermore. The tracks on the west flank of Altamont Pass would be laid on a former freight route deeded to Alameda County in 1984.

On the San Joaquin County side, Valley Link would share a right of way where UP runs freight trains. Whether the passenger trains would have their own tracks is still being discussed with the railroad, Tree said.

Valley Link aims to mesh its schedule with BART, which has provided frequent service since 1972. BART trains head west from Dublin into branches serving much of San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

Coming soon on ACE

ACE has $900 million from the state for the branches north and south from the Stockton area.

The southern extension will first go as far as Ceres, with stations also in the downtowns of Manteca, Ripon and Modesto. Service could start with a single train in 2021 or 2022 and reach four in 2023 or 2024.

This branch will expand to stations in Turlock, Livingston or Atwater, and Merced, with one train possibly in 2023 and the others by 2027. The system will connect to the high-speed rail segment between Merced and Bakersfield, if it survives current calls to divert funding to other transit needs.

ACE’s northern extension will have stations at Lodi, Elk Grove, Sacramento City College, Midtown, Old North Sacramento and Natomas. Service could start with one trip in 2021 or 2022 and reach four in 2023 or 2024.

The northern branch will share stations with Amtrak, which now runs two trains a day between Bakersfield and Sacramento and five between Bakersfield and Oakland.

Amtrak will add two trains to Sacramento as part of this project.