Extreme commuters ply the Amtrak Capitol Corridor
- 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
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
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
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
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-
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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