Transit Briefs: ACE, Amtrak, BART, Brightline WestWritten by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
ACE’s (Altamont Corridor Express) timeline is being pushed back for its commuter rail service expansion into Stanislaus and Sacramento counties in California. Also, Amtrak and the Southern Rail Commission are seeking a federal study for new long-distance service across Mississippi and Louisiana to Texas; San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) proposes fare increases in 2024 and 2025; and Brightline West teams with the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California (SBCTC) and the Southern Nevada Building Trades Union on its planned 218-mile high-speed rail system connecting Las Vegas and Southern California.
ACE officials are anticipating that expansion into Stanislaus and Sacramento counties will begin in late 2026, The Modesto Bee reported March 13. The new timeline, the newspaper said, was presented at a March 3 meeting of the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission, which is overseeing the project.
The two-year delay is due in part “to a complex review process by Union Pacific Railroad, which runs freight trains over the same tracks,” according to the newspaper. “A spokeswoman for UP said it is working with ACE to ensure that the expansion provides for safe and reliable service.”
ACE since 1998 has operated weekdays between Stockton and San Jose. The southern branch extension, with stations in north Lathrop, downtown Manteca, Ripon, Modesto, Ceres, Turlock, Livingston and Merced, was funded primarily by a $400 million state grant, which The Modesto Bee said was awarded in 2017. The plan had been to reach Ceres by 2023 and Merced by 2027, according to the newspaper. ACE’s new timeline, it reported, means Manteca, Modesto and Ceres would see stations by late 2026, with Ripton and north Lathrop coming on line in late 2027, Turlock in 2029, and Livingston and Merced in 2030.
The northern branch extension, with stations in northwest Elk Grove, Sacramento City College, Midtown, Old North Sacramento and Natomas, received $500.5 million in state grant funding in 2018, according to the newspaper. It said the new schedule puts stations in Elk Grove, Midtown and Natomas on track for service in late 2026, with Lodi in 2027, and the college and Old North Sacramento in 2029.
The Modesto Bee reported there are also slated to be two new round-trips for Amtrak San Joaquins service on the northern extension. The “overall ACE/Amtrak effort is called Valley Rail,” according to the newspaper. “Adding passenger service on a freight line requires a second track in many stretches, [San Joaquin Regional Rail] commission Executive Director Stacey Mortensen said [at the March 3 meeting]. She noted that each specific location requires three rounds of reviews by the host railroad as the drawings become more detailed. ACE runs entirely on UP tracks now and will do the same with its northern and southern branches.”
According to the newspaper, Amtrak “runs on UP tracks between Stockton and Sacramento, but it reaches Oakland and Bakersfield on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. That includes stations on the east side of Modesto and in Denair, Merced and points south. The ACE branches will start out with the current line’s emphasis on Bay Area commuters.”
The newspaper reported that the “new timeline involves issues beyond the UP review process, David Lipari, marketing manager for both ACE and Amtrak, said by phone Thursday [March 9]. For example, ACE had planned to have Modesto passengers board on a single platform. Instead, it will get two to handle future ridership growth, but this will require a pedestrian bridge over the tracks. Lipari also cited the complexity of a project aimed at easing a rail bottleneck in south Stockton. UP’s north-south line crosses at ground level with the east-west BNSF route. State and federal sources will pay for a $237 million flyover for UP, easing both freight and passenger movement.”
According to The Modesto Bee, another $142 million was granted by the state in February “to cover inflation on various aspects of Valley Rail. Some of the money will go to the Stockton flyover. Some will help with new stations. The rest will lengthen platforms at five current ACE stations to handle longer trains.”
Amtrak and the Southern Rail Commission (SRC) on March 10 reported that they will apply for a Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Federal-State Partnership Program grant to study new service between New York City, Atlanta and Dallas/Fort Worth by extending a section of the Amtrak Crescent train from Meridian, Miss., across Mississippi and Louisiana to Texas along Interstate 20. Amtrak Network Development Vice President Nicole Bucich announced the decision at the SRC’s quarterly meeting in New Orleans.
“With the encouragement and support of federal, state and local officials, this application is the first step in determining the feasibility of this concept and the benefits and challenges, including federal funding commitments, of expanding Amtrak service to the I-20 route,” Bucich said.
“Now that we have a way forward for new state-sponsored corridor service between New Orleans and Mobile, the I-20 route has been identified by the SRC as its next priority,” SRC Chairman Knox Ross said.
If the study is funded and produces “a sufficient business case for a direct connection between the Northeast Corridor and fast-growing areas in the South and West,” Amtrak reported that it would partner with the SRC and other stakeholders to seek federal capital and operating support to initiate the service.
Subject to the Surface Transportation Board’s approval of the Canadian Pacific (CP)-Kansas City Southern (KCS) merger, CP last year committed to support:
• The establishment of Amtrak service between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La. (The last passenger train between the cities was KCS’s Southern Belle, which was discontinued in 1969, one year before Amtrak’s creation.)
• The study of potential Amtrak service between Meridian and Dallas.
BART on March 10 reported seeking public feedback on two less-than-inflation fare increases that would go toward operating and capital budgets, funding train service, enhanced cleaning, additional police and unarmed safety staff presence, and capital projects such as purchasing new railcars. The last fare increase, of 3.4%, occurred July 1, 2022.
According to BART, the first and second proposed fare increases would become effective Jan. 1, 2024 and Jan. 1, 2025, respectively.
“In 2004, BART implemented the Board-approved Inflation-Based Fare Increase Program to offer riders a predictable pattern of small fare adjustments over time at a rate below inflation,” the transit agency said. “Due to recent rapid inflation, the program’s formula calls for a single 11.4% increase on Jan. 1, 2024; however, BART is proposing to spread the fare increase over two years by implementing two smaller increases of up to 5.5% each in 2024 and 2025. For a short trip, such as traveling from El Cerrito del Norte to 19th Street/Oakland, the regular fare is estimated to increase by up to $0.15 in 2024. For a longer trip, such as traveling from Antioch to Montgomery, the regular fare estimated to increase by up to $0.40.”
BART said it is also studying implementing a larger discount for low-income riders who use the regional Clipper START program, which would take effect Jan. 1, 2024. For adult riders with a household income of 200% of the federal poverty level or less, the program currently offers a discount of 20% per trip, and BART would increase that to 50% per trip.
Riders can provide comments on the changes through March 26 via an online survey at bart.gov/faresurvey.
Brightline West on March 9 reported signing a memorandum of understanding with SBCTC and the Southern Nevada Building Trades Union that ensures the $10 billion Brightline West high-speed rail project “will be built with unionized labor in California and Nevada, creating nearly 10,000 construction jobs and career opportunities.”
The 218-mile project is slated to be built within Interstate 15 right-of-way and to offer stations near the iconic Las Vegas Strip and in Rancho Cucamonga, Apple Valley and Hesperia, Calif. Trains would be capable of speeds of up to 200 miles per hour, and the system could create nearly 1,000 permanent jobs for operations and maintenance, according to Brightline West.
SBCTC, the California affiliate of North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU), has nearly 500,000 members, including roughly 70,000 apprentices, as part of its 157 affiliated unions from 14 different construction craft unions, 22 local building trades councils, and approximately 125 affiliated Joint Apprenticeship Training Committees.
The Southern Nevada Building Trades Union, an alliance of 14 local craft unions, represents thousands of iron workers, insulators, electrical workers and others.
“The California Building Trades is excited to partner with Brightline West and the Southern Nevada Building Trades on this historic project bringing high-speed rail and thousands of new construction jobs to Southern California and Southern Nevada,” SBCTC President Andrew Meredith said.
Added Vince Saavedra, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Southern Nevada Building Trades Union: “Our thousands of high-skilled members of our allied unions are standing at the ready to build this rail system. Nevada was built on the backs of our labor union members, and this historic rail project will continue that legacy.”
In related developments, Brightline West on Feb. 21 reported signing a memorandum of understanding with the High-Speed Rail Labor Coalition that establishes a commitment “for the use of highly skilled union labor in critical jobs required to operate and maintain” its high-speed rail project. The coalition comprises 13 rail unions representing more than 160,000 freight, regional, commuter and passenger railroad workers in the United States.
Also, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in October 2022 released an environmental assessment of Brightline West’s proposed 49-mile Cajon Pass High-Speed Rail segment in California. The segment would link Victor Valley and Rancho Cucamonga. The project includes two new stations: one in Hesperia and one in Rancho Cucamonga. The connecting station in Victor Valley was approved as part of Brightline West’s separate 200-mile Las Vegas-to-Victorville project that was evaluated in the Final Environmental Impact Statement (Final EIS; FRA 2011).