Get aboard the ACE train to California’s future

Riders disembark from an Altamont Corridor Express train at a station serving Lathrop and Manteca in  2016.
Riders disembark from an Altamont Corridor Express train at a station serving Lathrop and Manteca in 2016. Modesto Bee file

As the ACE pulls into Santa Clara station, the conductor apologizes for his train. “I’m sorry, but this is not the Amtrak!” he bellows. “And this is not Caltrain! If you want the Caltrain to San Francisco, do not board this train!”

This warning is useful: The ACE uses some of the same tracks but doesn’t go to the same places as Amtrak and Caltrain. It’s also fitting: ACE is important to California because of what it is not.

It’s not tourist-friendly, like San Diego’s trolley. It doesn’t connect our fanciest precincts, like BART. It’s not expensive to construct, like high-speed rail. And it’s not losing riders, like so much transit these days.

Instead, ACE is a real story of successful transportation in California. And it is planning expansion that — if Californians can move past the brain-dead politics of the gas tax — points to a future in which we can move around more easily.


The ACE (Altamont Corridor Express) is modest, just four round trips each weekday between Stockton and San Jose. It serves commuters, bridging the mismatch between where the jobs are in the Silicon Valley, and where people can afford homes, in the East Bay and northern San Joaquin Valley.

ACE started 20 years ago with just two daily round trips. But in the last six years, ridership has doubled to more than 5,000 a day and 1.3 million a year.

Joe Mathews (1).JPG
Joe Mathews

The plan is to expand in two directions at once in the 2020s — up to Sacramento and south to Modesto and eventually Merced. ACE — and eventually high-speed rail – will be connected at the two most important new transportation hubs of 21st century California.

The first is San Jose’s Diridon Station, which links Caltrain, Amtrak and Santa Clara’s VTA system. High-speed rail’s first phase would end there, and the station is next door to the site of Google’s future headquarters.

The second hub is downtown Merced, a future high-speed rail stop that is growing with the expansion of UC Merced. Unfortunately, this second extension to Merced is endangered because it is funded by the controversial gas tax increase that Proposition 6 on the Nov. 6 ballot would repeal.

One recent afternoon, I boarded the train at Diridon in San Jose and marveled at the crowds that embarked at the next two stations. The first, Santa Clara, has a shuttle to San Jose’s airport, while the second, Great America, was mobbed with employees of tech firms that run buses between their offices and ACE. At the Pleasanton station, new riders, who connect there with BART by shuttle bus, squeezed on.

The train emptied out over four stops: Livermore, Vasco Road, Tracy and Lathrop/Manteca. ACE riders told me that the traffic jams getting into station parking lots are the most difficult part of the trip. Another complaint I heard was about the cost of tickets (monthly passes exceed $300). But ACE is still cheaper than driving and parking in Silicon Valley.

My train was mostly empty on the last leg to Stockton’s downtown. From there, I walked to dinner. And I didn’t have to hurry; the train had arrived five minutes early.

Let’s hope California’s rail future has similar timing.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at


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