Sacramento train mystery: What happened to the passengers?

The Sacramento and Davis Amtrak stations have long been stalwart stops on California’s Capitol Corridor, major reasons the 170-mile rail line connecting the Valley and Bay Area is the third-busiest passenger service in America.

But in the past year, the number of passengers getting on and off in Sacramento and Davis has dropped notably. Concerned Capitol Corridor officials say they are launching an investigation to figure out what’s happening.

“I am not trying to sound alarm bells, but those are our two busiest stations, so we need to find out why,” Capitol Corridor chief David Kutrosky said.

Passenger levels dropped 6 percent this year at Sacramento Valley Station in downtown Sacramento and 5 percent in Davis, Kutrosky said. Combined, the two stations accounted for 88 percent of ridership losses on the system, which has 17 stations, and runs from Auburn to San Jose. A total of 1.7 million passengers rode the Capitol Corridor train in fiscal 2013, a 2.6 percent drop from the prior year.

Kutrosky declined to offer theories until his review is done. “I want to get into more detail first,” he said.

Riders and local rail observers say there may be several reasons for the decline, including a switch by some commuters to less expensive express buses run by local transit agencies, as well as the arrival of Internet-based discount intercity bus services such as Megabus.

Kutrosky said he also continues to hear from some train riders who are displeased with the longer walk to the station from the Sacramento downtown depot’s newly built passenger platforms, which makes it more difficult for some riders to catch their light-rail connections.

The walk is so long that Amtrak uses golf carts to shuttle some infirm and disabled riders between the station and platforms. “Too far,” said rider Geoff McLennan of Rocklin.

There may be other factors, including ongoing refurbishing of Sacramento’s downtown depot that has turned the otherwise elegant interior temporarily into a dark and sometimes noisy construction zone, crisscrossed with scaffolding.

Chuck Robuck, a rail activist and former Capitol Corridor rider from Auburn, now retired, says he believes the financial struggles of state workers in recent years may be taking a toll. “Here in the foothills, a lot of people have switched to the (county-run) Placer Commuter Express bus because of the cost difference,” Robuck said. “It’s $70 less expensive a month. That’s a biggie.”

Capitol Corridor data confirm a drop in ridership from Placer County. One dropout is Patty Atherton of Auburn, a longtime Capitol Corridor commuter who saves more than a $100 a month after switching to a private van pool in January. Atherton is disabled and said the wait at the Sacramento station for a transport cart caused her frequently to miss her light-rail connection.

“I miss the camaraderie of the train, but I love the van,” she said. “It drops me off right at my building.”

Overall, though, commute-period train ridership in Sacramento remains stable, data show. It’s the midday trains and some weekend service, which tend to have more leisure riders, that are seeing most of the falling ridership numbers, Kutrosky said.

The arrival of the national discount Megabus service in Sacramento nearly a year ago appears to present a particular challenge to some Capitol Corridor trains, offering cheaper travel between Sacramento and San Francisco, said DePaul University’s Joseph Schwieterman, who has been studying the impacts of the new online, discount intercity bus companies.

With variable pricing, including a splashy promise of at least one $1 fare on every bus, upstart Megabus has undercut Capitol Corridor prices dramatically for people who buy online in advance.

“No doubt Megabus is siphoning endpoint to endpoint traffic,” Schwieterman said. “The good news is that rail and bus are coexisting nicely around the country, attracting passengers that otherwise might drive. It is not hurting Amtrak in a dramatic way, but it clearly slows the rate of growth.”

Megabus spokesman Mike Alvich said business is going well for his company in Sacramento nearly a year after it was launched here. “We are meeting our expectations,” he said. He declined to offer details.

Greyhound, as well, has been on a major effort to renew its bus fleet.

West Sacramento resident Nahdxyeli Valdez, 29, has ridden Capitol Corridor trains. But on Monday, she took Megabus to class in San Francisco. Last-minute tickets that morning cost her an unusually high $41 for the trip there and back, but it was still cheaper than Capitol Corridor, which likely would have been in the $64 range, she estimated.

“Usually, I can get Megabus for $9 each way, which is awesome,” she said.

Rail travel on the I-80 corridor still retains some perks, though. San Francisco resident Karen Kayfetz, 27, a biologist, took the Capitol Corridor train to Sacramento on Monday for a business meeting, and she said she plans to stick with rail. She typically buys discounted tickets, she said, and she knows she is not going to get stuck in a traffic jams that buses and cars deal with.

“I’ve had meetings in Sacramento where there has been some crazy accident and people don’t make it to the meeting,” she said.

Capitol Corridor chief Kutrosky already has taken steps to try to bolster midday ridership, introducing 50-percent-off weekend travel for riders who buy their tickets online, and a 50 percent midday, midweek senior rate. He said it is too early to tell how riders are reacting to those deals.

Kutrosky said he also is talking with Sacramento Regional Transit officials about plans to relocate the downtown light-rail station to a spot close to the tunnel that leads to the passenger platforms.

Davis officials say they are not pleased by the report of a ridership drop-off in their city.

“We’ll be taking a very close look at the decrease,” Davis Mayor Joe Krovoza said. “Davis as a destination – with our downtown thriving and university enrollment increasing – make these numbers puzzling.”