Jeffrey Callison prepares to board a Capitol Corridor train at Sacramento Valley Station in downtown Sacramento for his return to Roseville. Callison is one of a growing number of workers who use public transportation for at least a portion of their daily commute.

Rail Warriors

As more workers commute by train, Amtrak has plans to get them there quicker

Back Longreads Apr 30, 2019 By Allen Pierleoni

It’s safe to say Jeffrey Callison never gives a thought to the Transcontinental Railroad when his alarm wakes him at 5:25 a.m., even though May 10 marks the TCRR’s 150th anniversary.  

Without it — and the 200,000-plus miles of track that followed because of it — he wouldn’t be commuting to work by train.

Callison drives from his Lincoln home at 6:40 a.m. to catch the 7:02 a.m. train from Roseville Station, which delivers him to Sacramento Valley Station on I Street 22 minutes later. From there, he walks the mile-and-a-half to his job as assistant director of communications for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. On rainy days, he leaves Sacramento Valley Station and boards a nearby light rail train that drops him a block from his office. 

He repeats the process at the end of the day, catching the 5:22 p.m. train back to Roseville. It’s a round trip he’s done for 7 1/2 years. 

Related: Transcontinental Railroad Turns 150

Related: Is taller, denser housing near transit hubs right for the Capital Region?

“It’s very relaxing, even though the train seems more crowded and busier than when I first started taking it, as does the parking lot around the station,” he says. “Still, I’m glad I don’t have to deal with the stress of commute driving, which I have done.”

The biggest change Callison has seen is to Sacramento Valley Station. “When I started taking Capitol Corridor, the tracks and platforms had not been realigned, and the main station building hadn’t been refurbished.”

Callison is a veteran among a growing number of passengers (two-thirds are commuters) who regularly travel by rail on Capitol Corridor, the major passenger-train path managed by the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority and operated by Amtrak. Connecting Sacramento and Placer counties to the Bay Area, it’s a 170-mile, 18-stop journey running through eight counties from Auburn to San Jose. 

Last year, the train service carried 1.7 million passengers (up 6 percent from 2017) and had a 43 percent increase in new riders. This makes it the third-busiest route in the Amtrak system, after the Northeast and Southern California corridors.  

A big factor that drives our ridership growth is the shift of people moving out of the Bay Area to the greater Sacramento Area, especially
in the past five years.”

— Karan Bakar, spokesperson, Capitol Corridor

“A big factor that drives our ridership growth is the shift of people moving out of the Bay Area to the greater Sacramento area, especially in the past five years,” says Capitol Corridor spokesperson Karan Bakar. 

All Aboard

Such numbers are reflective of an ongoing commuter migration that is gaining momentum. 

“The data show us that Sacarameto is the No. 1 place that Bay Area residents move to and that the Bay Area is the second most preferred market for residents leaving Sacramento,” says Elizabeth Myers, research and strategy manager for the Greater Sacramento Economic Council.

 Last year, 27,116 people moved to the six-county greater Sacramento area from the 10-county Bay Area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

But there’s a caveat: During that same time, 17,681 people moved out of Sacramento and headed to the Bay Area, a net migration to Sacramento from the Bay Area of 9,435.  

However, many of the workers seeking a more affordable lifestyle in Sacramento “have maintained their jobs in the Bay Area, as well as their friends, family and other connections,” Bakar says. “At the same time, traffic [on interstate highways] has gotten worse, and people don’t want to deal with it.”

Bay Area planning studies indicate that 125,000 new jobs will become available in San Francisco in the next 20 years, and they likely will be filled by train commuters. Such an expansion will require upgrades. 

“The safety of our passengers is Capitol Corridor’s No. 1 priority,” says Capitol Corridor Managing Director David Kutrosky. “Regular periodic maintenance is performed on all of the Capitol Corridor locomotives, passenger cars and stations. We also work closely with our operating partners to ensure that the tracks, signals, bridges and other rail infrastructure are in state-of-the-art repair to ensure the Capitol Corridor trains can safely and reliably operate at maximum speeds.” 

Upgrading the Rail

In 2013, the CCJPA board of directors asked its staff to “demonstrate a transformative service for the Northern California Megaregion.” For instance, Kutrosky says new cars and locomotives will be purchased within two years. The ultimate goal, according to the plan: “A modern railroad built to international standards, electrified and capable of top speeds of 150 mph.” 

That scenario is decades away, but a major step was taken in 2017 when Amtrak debuted $7 million state-of-the-art Charger diesel-electric locomotives that run faster, cleaner and quieter than the ones they replaced, most of which were built before 2000.  

Also, at least three near-term projects are on the drawing boards, Kutrosky says.

The two-phase Sacramento-Roseville Third Track Project will add two additional round trips between Sacramento and Roseville within two years. (Callison’s commuter is the only round-trip now). In the long term “there will be even more trains in each direction that will go all the way to the Bay Area and Silicon Valley,” Kutrosky says.

Within three years, the Santa Clara Track Siding Project “will better serve events at Levi’s Stadium with special trains that will pull into the station when the events are over,” he says. 

In three to five years, the South Bay Reroute will take 15 minutes off travel time between Oakland and Santa Clara. 

Second Crossing, a long-range multibillion-dollar joint effort between Amtrak and Bay Area Rapid Transit, is by far the most ambitious project. It would have tracks run across San Francisco Bay to San Francisco, maybe via bridge, maybe through a tube. It’s speculated the project could take up to 20 years, but would “open up a new market to service the Northern California Megaregion,” Kutrosky says.

The Sacramento-San Francisco leg is the most-traveled on the Capitol Corridor line. With a second crossing of the bay — BART uses the Transbay Tube — “Sacramento passengers would no longer have to transfer in Emeryville to a bus or in Richmond to BART to get into the city. They would have a one-seat ride, with continuing service down the peninsula,” Kutrosky  says.

 Work on the “very initial” stages has begun, he says, including BART commissioning a $50 million, 10-year feasibility study. 

Off-road upgrades

On March 21, a man was hit and killed by a Capitol Corridor train at the Davis Amtrak station. In a statement, Amtrak officials noted that “about 2,000 people are killed or injured each year in grade crossing and trespassing incidents nationwide.” In comparison, auto accidents kill more than 1  million people annually.   

Yet, safety remains a top priority. Last year, the Capitol Corridor outfitted its fleet with a computer system called Positive Train Control. In extreme situations, such as approaching a curve too fast, it would take control and stop the train to avoid a major crash. 

On-time reliability is also key, particularly considering the influx of commuter riders. From December 2018 to February of this year, Capitol Corridor’s average weekday on-time performance score ranged from a low of 70 percent to the high 90s, with most in the middle to high 80s. 

“If  we’re not going to be on time, our passengers want to know right away so they can make alternate plans,”  Bakar says. To that end, service alerts go out over email, text and Twitter and are accessible on an app.  

Added to that are enhanced communications systems, such as onboard digital displays, interactive voice response with 24/7 telephone support and improved wayfinding at stations, Bakar says.  

Amenities and money-saving deals include recently upgraded free Wi-Fi, charging ports, a car with food and drinks, multiple discounts, and other promotions. 

 “We want customers to get on board and feel like they can leave the stress of everyday life behind them,” Bakar says.

Full Steam Ahead

Just as Sacramento’s past is conjoined to rail travel, so is its future. But there’s context: 

With the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, Sacramento “became the  transportation center of the West in 1870,” says Earl Tobey, a guide at the California State Railroad Museum. “People from all over the world congregated here to make their transportation plans by rail and riverboat.” 

To build and service its locomotives and cars, Southern Pacific established its maintenance shops north of what is now the central city. Those railyards expanded to 244 acres and at one time employed one-third of Sacramento’s labor force. 

Over the following decades, the land was sold to Union Pacific and underwent a $300 million cleanup of toxic substances.    

The city consulted with a series of developers who tried and failed to reinvent the property. Then, in September 2005, developer LDK Ventures of Sacramento purchased all 244 acres. Its master plan is  to transform the railyard into a mixed-use residential-retail-office extension of downtown, with parks, restaurants and a history museum, doubling the size of the central city.  

 Committed so far are a Sacramento Superior Court building (construction starts this year), a Kaiser Permanente hospital and possibly a Major League Soccer stadium. The Railyards project is expected to take 20 years to complete and will be the most expensive infill challenge in Sacramento history. 

The coming of the Transcontinental Railroad transformed Sacramento into the city it is today. The railyards — a key legacy of the railroads’ permeating influence — will again shape Sacramento’s future. 

 “That’s the essence of The Railyards project — taking the roots and history of Sacramento as a railroad town and carrying it forward in a similar but different format,” says LDK managing principal Denton Kelley and member of Comstock’s editorial board. “To see the impacts these types of projects have on the community and on families’ lives is very rewarding.” 


ANDY (not verified)February 29, 2020 - 9:00pm

Huh? 1 million+ people a year die in vehicle accidents?

Amtrak officials noted that “about 2,000 people are killed or injured each year in grade crossing and trespassing incidents nationwide.” In comparison, auto accidents kill more than 1 million people annually

I think that statistic is for the entire world, not the US.

Jennifer FergesenMarch 1, 2020 - 12:05am

Good point, Andy. The 1 million value is for the whole world, not really a fair comparison against U.S.-only Amtrak. (About 30,000 people die in car accidents every year in the U.S., according in National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.) We'll be more careful about checking this kind of figure in the future.