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Extreme commuters ply the Amtrak Capitol Corridor

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  • 2/27 Sacramento News
    Published Thursday, February 27, 2003, in the Sacramento News & Review The ride of their lives Extreme commuters are up at 4 a.m., travel 150 miles to their
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 1, 2003
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      Published Thursday, February 27, 2003, in the Sacramento News & Review

      The ride of their lives

      Extreme commuters are up at 4 a.m., travel 150 miles to their jobs,
      work a full day and then come back home. At least these people have
      a train -- the Capitol Corridor -- to help carry the load.

      By Jeff Kearns

      Downtown Sacramento is silent and deserted at 4 a.m. Yellow traffic
      lights flash mindlessly above empty intersections. But at the I
      Street train station, the ticket counter is open for business, and
      the first Capitol Corridor train of the day is already idling at the
      platform, its windows glowing brightly. When the Bay Area-bound
      train pulls out at 4:25 a.m., easing across the river where the
      glowing golden tops of the Tower Bridge vanish in low fog, the seven
      passengers barely outnumber the four crew members. But more people
      will board as the sun rises and the train moves west.

      This is the newest train on the Capitol Corridor schedule, and, even
      though it departs while everyone else is snoozing, it has been
      adding new riders steadily since its introduction on January 6.

      One car, at the rear of the train, is the quiet car, where talking
      and typing and cellphones are off-limits. On early-morning runs like
      this one, the lights are off, and passengers curl up in blue airline-
      style seats that recline just enough to make sleep a little easier --
      not that it's difficult in the dead of night.

      As the train picks up speed across the Yolo Causeway, those
      commuters who aren't asleep come to the cafe car for coffee to get
      themselves going.

      The Capitol Corridor is a going concern, one of the fastest growing
      intercity rail lines in the country. It boasts double-digit
      ridership gains every year. The 170-mile line stops in 16 cities,
      from Auburn to Sacramento to Oakland to San Jose.

      These days, as public-transportation systems and airlines fight to
      hang on, the Capitol Corridor is carrying more people than it ever
      has -- all without increasing its own budget.

      The most recent ridership figures show that the number of passengers
      who rode in December set a new record, bringing the total for the
      month up 14.5 percent from where it was during the previous
      December. A month after the 4:25 a.m. train started running,
      ridership had hit about 100 people per trip -- eclipsing projections.

      The passengers on this train are extreme commuters. Up since about
      3:30 a.m., they are from the Sacramento area and bound for cities
      like Richmond, Hayward or even San Jose, where they will work all
      day before making the trip home at night.

      Their commutes may seem like punishment worthy of a daredevil
      reality show, but these regulars are grateful to get a ride.

      Marlene Martinez, who lives in Sacramento, recently started teaching
      biology at UC Berkeley. That means she's up at 3:30 a.m. and back
      home in the late afternoon or evening. The 4:25 a.m. train is the
      only one that gets her to school on time.

      "I was driving," says Martinez, who's thinking about moving closer
      to work next semester. "Oh my God, that was miserable. It was dark
      and foggy and raining, and the drivers are crazy. Then, by Vallejo,
      the traffic is bad. I did the drive for a week, and I was a mess, so
      I don't care that this takes me an extra half hour or hour." The
      ride gives her time to get started on work -- if she can stay
      awake. "I can get an hour and a half of uninterrupted work done."

      After driving for three years, Roseville resident Lonnie Miller now
      takes the train most of the way to the Safeway store he manages in
      Hayward -- something he chose to do rather than buy a home in the
      Bay Area. "You'd arrive at work so exhausted. In the fog, you have
      the window open, listening for crashes," he says. This way, he can
      take care of some work. Four days a week, he drives to Sacramento to
      board the train, which means he's up at 3:15 a.m. and home as late
      as 9:30 p.m. "After driving for three years, this became an answer
      to my burnout."

      By 5:48 a.m., after crossing the Carquinez Strait, the Capitol
      Corridor winds along the dark edge of San Pablo Bay. When it pulls
      into Berkeley at 6:10 a.m., there's a small group waiting in the
      darkness on the platform. This is the halfway point, where the train
      starts filling with passengers headed to Silicon Valley. On this
      particular day, one passenger who boarded in the East Bay sleeps
      soundly, wearing earmuffs and wraparound sunglasses, his mouth
      slightly open.

      The service has a loyal following among regular riders. Commuters
      who get to know one another on the train make friends with people
      they wouldn't otherwise know. Some riders who catch the single round-
      trip each day from Sacramento to Auburn regularly host parties on
      Fridays.

      But there's one kink in the system that even the most enthusiastic
      riders grumble about: frequent delays, usually caused by freight
      trains that share the tracks and have priority.

      At 6:30 a.m., the train is blasting through the junkyards and
      warehouses between Oakland and Hayward as the gray light comes up
      behind the East Bay hills.

      Antoine Gomez, who lives in Sacramento and works as a computer
      network engineer in Santa Clara, is more animated than most people
      would be at this hour. He's glad he's not driving. "I'm stoked,"
      says Gomez, wearing headphones and tapping away on a laptop. "I'm
      productive. I'm efficient. I'm happy."

      Asked why he wants to work 120 miles from home, Gomez cites the same
      reason for his marathon commute as many others: Housing is cheaper
      in the Central Valley.

      "When you go to purchase a house in Silicon Valley, you can't buy a
      home unless you're one of those stock-rich millionaires." Gomez says
      he used to live in the South Bay. Then, on trips to his company's
      data centers in Sacramento, he started noticing the price of real
      estate.

      By 7 a.m., as the early-morning train chugs out of Fremont, the red
      glow of dawn hangs over new tract homes.

      Relaxing in the cafe car with her hands wrapped around a cup of hot
      coffee, Linda Desai looks less like a harried commuter and more like
      a figure from a cruise-ship ad. Desai says she's used several
      different ways to get from home in Hayward to Santa Clara, where
      she's an engineer for a company that manufactures chip-making
      equipment. She's combined car, bike, BART, bus, carpool,
      telecommuting and even Altamont Commuter Express, the Stockton-to-
      San Jose rail line.

      "This is the most civilized way to travel," she says. "It's very
      relaxing. I sleep or work or plan my day."

      Since finding the Capitol Corridor, she's been given to evangelism.

      "I'm a public-transportation true believer. I've been riding BART
      since the day it opened. We need to do this. I have so many converts
      with people at work. I've got other people to ride the train."

      South of Fremont, the last leg of the trip cuts across the Don
      Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wild-life Refuge at the
      southernmost end of the bay. Peering out the window at salt ponds
      and tidal marshes, Desai, a birdwatcher, says this is the best part
      of the trip. "I see all kinds of birds: hawks, pheasant, egrets,
      pelicans," she says. Behind her, the sun rising above the low
      mountains is reflected on the smooth waters as several hundred
      seagulls all take flight at once.

      The train pulls into Santa Clara, the second-to-last stop, at 7:30
      a.m. Passengers hop off and hurry to vans, buses or the nearby light-
      rail station.

      Desai steps off with her bike and pedals the rest of the way to
      work, about 10 minutes away. Gomez, the network engineer, also gets
      off -- three hours after boarding in Sacramento. He walks across the
      street; gets in a small, brown Toyota he keeps at the station; and
      drives the rest of the way to work. He'll be at his desk by 8 a.m.

      Caltrans started running the first Capitol Corridor trains in 1991,
      but by 1995, with four trains, ridership and revenues looked so bad
      that the state almost pulled the plug. The near-death prompted
      creation in 1998 of the eight-county Capitol Corridor Joint Powers
      Authority (CCJPA) that runs things now.

      The CCJPA is a fairly unique setup. There's really no railroad to
      speak of. All ticketing, operations and maintenance are contracted
      out to Amtrak. Caltrans owns the trains and covers about 60 percent
      of the $32 million operating budget. The CCJPA has 16 board members,
      two elected officials from each county it serves. Administrative
      duties are handled by BART, which has 10 employees dedicated to
      running the Capitol Corridor trains out of its offices in Oakland.
      Union Pacific owns the tracks and handles traffic control. It allows
      access in exchange for payments that fund track and signal upgrades.
      The Capitol Corridor also has a network of feeder buses that run
      everywhere from Monterey to Reno to Santa Rosa, but they're owned by
      private-sector operators driving under contract. (The trains wear
      Amtrak and Caltrans logos on the outside, but there's really no hint
      of BART's role, except for one thing: BART tickets are available in
      the cafe car at a 20-percent discount.)

      The small administrative staff includes the CCJPA's managing
      director, Eugene Skoropowski. The multi-agency arrangement,
      Skoropowski said, "buys us a public service at a fraction of what it
      costs to build it and run it and maintain it ourselves."

      As the Capitol Corridor's popularity took off in the last few years,
      Skoropowski got most of the credit.

      "All this business needs is someone who believes in it," Skoropowski
      said, with just a hint of his Boston accent. "There's a role for
      passenger trains that has been unrecognized for a long time."

      Standing inside the cavernous old Sacramento depot, Skoropowski
      waited for a train back to his East Bay home on a January afternoon.
      He'd been in Sacramento for a day of meetings and was lugging around
      a white cardboard box filled with reports to digest over the weekend.

      With white hair and wearing a blue suit, Skoropowski, 58, looked
      like any other business traveler, right down to the ticket, which he
      had bought like anyone else would.

      One rider who recognized him chatted him up while he waited. Ernie
      Schulzke, a judge heading home to Auburn, knows Skoropowski from
      seeing him onboard. "He's performed a miracle in terms of the
      service," Schulzke said. "We still have problems, but they're
      getting better."

      As he walked out to the platform, Skoropowski bumped into conductors
      who knew him and stopped to talk. They appeared to get a kick out of
      seeing him around.

      Skoropowski, too, seemed to like this part of the job: being out
      there, talking to passengers and employees. He tries to be visible
      by mingling with riders, who contact him with suggestions,
      complaints and praise.

      If someone's mad about a problem, he said, even if it's something
      like an unavoidable delay, explaining the situation to a disgruntled
      passenger can make a lot of difference, even if it's just to show
      that someone is paying attention.

      Skoropowski started thinking that way when he was a kid.

      Growing up in a blue-collar suburb of Boston, Skoropowski learned as
      a young paperboy that customers love getting a dry paper right on
      their doorstep. The extra effort generated big tips, and subscribers
      requested him. It showed him that little things please people.

      Ironically, he got into the transit business as an unhappy
      customer. "I became an angry rider," he said.

      In the early 1970s, Skoropowski commuted to downtown Boston, where
      he worked as an architect. Service was awful. Rain leaked into rail
      cars. But when commuter lines were to be phased out, Skoropowski and
      others created a citizens' group. They objected and successfully
      pushed for Boston to be the first city allowed to use highway money
      for mass transit.

      As an activist, Skoropowski became friends with David Gunn, who
      ran "The T," or the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

      "I'd go to dinner at his house once a week or so, and we'd plot and
      scheme how to save commuter rail," said Gunn, now president of
      Amtrak. "And we did it."

      They got help from former Democratic presidential nominee Mike
      Dukakis, who, in 1974, was a Massachusetts state representative
      running for governor. Dukakis met with Skoropowski and a dozen other
      rail activists trying to keep the commuter trains running. Dukakis,
      a rail proponent, listened carefully. As governor, he later presided
      over a state takeover of the failing rail lines, which handed the
      routes to the MBTA. Today, Dukakis is vice-chairman of Amtrak's
      board of directors.

      Skoropowski got into the rail business for the first time in 1977,
      when Gunn recruited him to oversee MBTA's new commuter-rail
      services. Gunn later ran Philadelphia's transit system and hired
      Skoropowski, who spent nine years there before taking a private-
      sector job with an engineering firm.

      Then, at a 1999 transit conference, Skoropowski bumped into Tom
      Margro, an old co-worker from Philly who is now BART's general
      manager. He mentioned that the Capitol Corridor was looking for a
      director. Skoropowski got the job.

      When Skoropowski started work three months later, the Capitol
      Corridor wasn't looking good. Caltrans wanted to cut funds for
      service to Roseville, Rocklin, Auburn and Colfax within 30 days.

      Then-Senator Tim Leslie, R-Roseville, leaned on Caltrans for a stay
      of execution. "Our objective was to buy a little time," Leslie
      said. "Meantime, Skoropowski hit the drawing boards."

      The answer was in reworking the schedule.

      "We came back with something called the February 2000 Plan,"
      Skoropowski said. It restructured the timetable and cut service back
      by one station so that it ended at Auburn instead of Colfax. That
      saved enough money to keep service to Auburn and add more trips on
      other parts of the route -- all for the same level of state
      funding. "That's what really started the big ridership growth. The
      first year of operation, ridership grew 17 percent. The following
      year, with this plan, it went up 40 percent. The following year,
      when we added the eighth and ninth trains, it went up another 41
      percent."

      Sacramento County Supervisor Roger Dickinson, a CCJPA board member,
      watched the turnaround. "It was on the verge of extinction. Now,
      it's more popular every day, and a lot of that has to do with Gene
      [Skoropowski]."

      Last year, Skoropowski wanted more state money for increased
      service. He didn't get it, so he found a way to add three round-trip
      trains for the same cost instead. (Because of the state budget
      crisis, funding levels will stay the same next year.)

      One example, Skoropowski said, is an evening train that runs from
      Sacramento to Oakland. The train frequently needed to go from
      Sacramento to the Amtrak maintenance facility in Oakland at the end
      of the day, and it made the trip empty. Then the CCJPA put it on the
      schedule so it could pick up passengers on the way. It doesn't have
      a lot of regular riders, but the run carries as many as 200
      passengers on weekends.

      It's easy to see the increase by looking at the three latest
      timetables. April 2002 showed 18 weekday trains between Auburn and
      San Jose. October 2002 showed 20 trains. And the most recent,
      January 2003, showed 22 trains. That kind of growth is almost
      unheard of in the commuter-rail business. It's also the key to
      attracting riders: Increased frequency brings in new customers.

      Passengers responded. Last year, 1.08 million people boarded the
      Capitols -- twice as many as in 1998. In the same four-year period,
      fare revenues doubled, the percentage of costs covered by fares
      increased by a third, and cost per passenger-mile dropped by a
      quarter. (One-way fares run $4 to $18.)

      While the image of California is one in which everyone drives, it's
      not as true as it used to be. Californians are embracing rail like
      never before. Caltrans funds two other in-state lines like the
      Capitols: the San Joaquins from Bakersfield to Sacramento and
      Oakland, and the Pacific Surfliners from San Luis Obispo to San
      Diego. Ridership is increasing on both, but the Surfliner is the
      country's second-busiest intercity rail line, at 1.5 million
      passengers per year.

      The CCJPA has tried new approaches to attract riders. Last year, it
      kicked off a new business class for riders willing to pay more for a
      guaranteed seat and laptop outlet. Last month, the CCJPA started a
      massage-therapy pilot program, bringing in a certified therapist to
      give neck and shoulder massages for $1 per minute on one Sacramento-
      bound afternoon train.

      Some of the most grateful commuters are the ones who come down from
      the foothill cities that almost lost service. One train comes down
      from Auburn to Sacramento in the morning, and there's a single
      return trip in the evening. Feeder buses make the trip at off-peak
      hours.

      These commuters form a tight-knit bunch that calls itself the CC
      Riders (a nod to the Ma Rainey song). They regularly host theme
      parties on the train. On a recent Friday, it was a luau with food
      and Hawaiian songs. At Christmas, riders brought home-brewed beer,
      and a band played on St. Patrick's Day.

      Chuck Robuck, who lives in Newcastle, runs the CC Riders Web page
      (http://www.ccriders.us), and he e-mails Skoropowski about once a
      week. When there's a party planned, Robuck asks Skoropowski to put
      one of the old-style cafe cars on the evening train because the
      layout inside is better for socializing. If it's not a problem,
      Skoropowski will. "He's extremely responsive," Robuck said.

      Skoropowski gets a lot of e-mails. If they don't know his face, many
      riders know his name. Skoropowski regularly distributes a "Message
      to Riders," which includes his e-mail address. (Looking for him?
      It's <eskorop@...>.) So, he hears about almost everything, even
      the cafe car's menu.

      "I wrote him when they took away the cinnamon-raisin bagels," said
      Bob Gagen, a Contra Costa County Sheriff's deputy heading home from
      Martinez to Woodland. "Another woman wrote when the Cheerios were
      gone."

      Gagen, who said he wouldn't work where he does without the train, is
      part of an increasing number of evening commuters who come home to
      the Sacramento region from Bay Area jobs.

      In the long term, Skoropowski and the board want faster trips and
      hourly departures in each direction, which would use the remaining
      capacity allowed under the agreement with Union Pacific.

      Agencies in California and Nevada are studying a possible extension
      to Reno, and a four-county group is proposing a new Auburn-to-Dixon
      commuter line that could end up partnering with the Capitol
      Corridor. Union Pacific, however, wants money for new tracks before
      that happens.

      While the Capitol Corridor expands, Amtrak is still on life-support,
      dependent on the whims of a stingy Congress. Skoropowski's old
      friend Gunn -- who is revered as a no-BS turnaround artist who
      rescued transit systems in New York; Washington, D.C.; and Toronto --
      said the Capitol Corridor model of state funding and local control
      could be one of the ways to save the national rail system.

      Dukakis, too, said trains that run between different cities don't
      have access to federal funds the way highways, airports and subways
      do. Amtrak board members like what they see in the California model,
      he said, and how well it's working. "It has a lot to do with the
      fact that the state not only contributes but also has a strong
      interest in the success of those trains," Dukakis said. The Capitol
      Corridor and other intercity trains, however, would be a lot better
      off if the federal government would step up with dedicated,
      dependable funding for them, Dukakis said. "I hope one of these
      days, the United States of America wakes up and starts committing
      itself to the kind of thing we're talking about. It's really just
      beyond my comprehension why we have so badly neglected rail in this
      country. It just doesn't make any sense, and now we're paying for
      it. I mean, I don't have to tell you what the freeways are like."

      Regardless of whether the federal funding ever materializes,
      Skoropowski said he'll keep trying to improve the Capitols. He even
      turned down Gunn's invitation to work at Amtrak a couple years
      ago. "I said, 'I think it'll be a lot nicer to have you working for
      me as a contractor than me working for you.' This is the best job
      I've ever had."

      At times, though, it can be trying -- especially dealing with the
      unpredictable nature of sharing Union Pacific tracks with the
      company's lumbering freight trains.

      Making things worse is the state of the rail freight business, which
      is booming. Union Pacific's Roseville railyard is one of the
      country's busiest, and the Port of Oakland just opened a new
      intermodal facility to load and unload containers on trains.

      According to Skoropowski, Capitols run on time about 77 percent to
      80 percent of the time. "Not good enough," he said.

      Last fall, when the chronic delays got really bad, Skoropowski cut
      the price of tickets for regular riders in December as a way to make
      up for the inconvenience.

      In late January, operators started holding a San Jose-bound Capitol
      train as it came into the South Bay. That let the Sacramento-bound
      train squeeze past along a single-track section so it could get
      started on schedule. It worked for a while, until a derailment
      blocked tracks between Davis and Sacramento. Though one track was re-
      opened overnight, Union Pacific gave freight trains priority in the
      morning. Passengers on early morning trains, including the one
      departing Sacramento at 4:25 a.m., wasted an hour sitting on the
      Yolo Causeway.

      Skoropowski spent the following day handling the fallout and posted
      an apologetic letter on the Web site to riders. "While it would be
      expected that there may be some minor passenger-train delays into
      and out of Sacramento in the morning," he wrote, "what happened to
      this morning's passenger-train service was an operating disaster for
      passengers."

      But, though Union Pacific usually gets painted as the bad guy when
      it gets in the way of passenger trains, Skoropowski said the
      railroad has been really responsive, even bringing out a network
      infrastructure manager from its headquarters in Omaha to handle
      California's growing passenger-rail market.

      At the height of the evening commute, the Sacramento-bound train,
      No. 540, is packed as it rumbles across a bridge high above the
      Carquinez Strait. The black water below reflects the full moon,
      hanging high in the sky above the orange lights of distant
      refineries. The train is about an hour late.

      Still, commuters don't seem to let it dampen their devotion to the
      service. Because this is one of the trains that originates in San
      Jose, it's often stuck in that single-track bottleneck. At the same
      time, passengers say, trains from Oakland run like clockwork.

      "This train has been late every day," says San Francisco attorney
      Amy Whitney, riding home to Sacramento at a table with a bottle of
      Sierra Nevada and an open laptop. Whitney's co-worker, Adela
      Arevalo, shrugs it off, saying the train makes possible her very
      long commute from San Francisco to Yuba City. (San Francisco-bound
      passengers can catch feeder buses in Emeryville or transfer to BART
      in Richmond.) The trip takes Arevalo about three hours, but she
      doesn't see it as a huge sacrifice. When people ask, she tells them
      it's time she might have wasted at home watching TV. "People
      say, 'You're crazy,' but I don't think about it."

      To make sure their train is on time before they leave work, some
      regulars call Amtrak's 800 number or check its Web site for arrival
      information. And there's a new monitoring method on the way. Though
      it won't make trains run on time, the Capitols are getting new GPS
      transponders this spring that will relay the train's arrival time
      via satellite to message signs at stations, so waiting passengers
      don't have to wonder. The system has been installed, and it should
      be up and running within a couple months.

      There is a permanent solution on the way, too. Work begins this
      spring to add a second track on the Yolo Causeway, and those South
      Bay bottlenecks also will be double-tracked later this year or next
      year. Both projects are part of a total of $88 million in track and
      signal improvements that the CCJPA is funding along the route.
      Skoropowski is also participating in the planning process for the
      long-awaited redevelopment of the Sacramento downtown railyards,
      which will turn the historic Southern Pacific depot into a
      transportation hub at the edge of a new downtown district. As an
      architect, he sees the incredible potential of the abandoned
      industrial area. But as the CCJPA's director, he's really interested
      in fixing up the historic depot and the areas around it. Sacramento
      makes up 20 percent of the Capitol Corridor trains' market.

      As the train descends from the bridge on the Benicia side, there is
      a long line at the counter in the cafe car, but instead of the
      coffee passengers were looking for in the morning, evening
      passengers are lined up mostly for beer.

      Up and down the train, there's a lot going on: Passengers are
      eating, drinking, reading, working, chatting, laughing, playing
      cards, grading papers, thumbing through the newspaper and knitting.
      It's like a long, crowded living room. Many passengers are using
      laptops, including a couple of guys watching DVDs on theirs.

      Carrie Smith, a long-distance rider whose twice-weekly trip gets her
      most of the way from her Grass Valley home to acupuncture class in
      Oakland, says she called once to complain about some trains running
      late. "They were very nice," she says. "They sent me a 25-percent-
      off coupon. ... It could be worse. I could be in my car."

      The train continues through the darkness, discharging commuters in
      Fairfield and Davis. Finally, it crosses the river into Sacramento.
      The train, due in Sacramento at 6:50 p.m., arrives after 8. It
      squeals to a halt, and passengers stream out of the doors onto neon-
      lit platforms. Some walk quickly into the parking lot, where the
      cars they left here all day waited patiently for their owners to
      return.
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