STOCKTON — After four months on the tracks as an experiment in transit, the Altamont Commuter Express has already become a cherished part of its passengers' lives.
That's because the sleek new bi-level trains provide an escape from some of the most congested roadways in Northern California. The 85-mile train route from Stockton to San Jose, which takes 2 1/2 hours for the trains to traverse, links affordable homes in the mainly agricultural San Joaquin Valley to high-tech jobs in pricey Silicon Valley.
"We love that train. We lovingly say it's going from cow chips to computer chips," said Carl Guardino, president of the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group. That organization helped lobby for the ACE line, which received large government subsidies to operate for at least three years.
Ridership has grown steadily to the current average of 1,500 boardings per day, or about 72% of capacity for the two round-trip runs. To accommodate more riders, the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission, which manages ACE, plans to add three leased cars soon to supplement the eight it purchased.
A few riders grumble about the price of tickets, which can run as high as $19 per round trip, with monthly passes ranging from $59 to $279. And some are not pleased with the predawn departures.
But overall, passengers such as Anthony Zador are happy to get off the road. He catches the second westbound train from Stockton at 5:22 a.m., which is more popular than the 4:16 a.m.
Zador used to drive alone from his home in Lodi, about 15 miles north of Stockton, to his design technician job at a Pleasanton aerospace materials company. He said his commute took one to two hours.
"Every day I'd see an accident, and they'd cause major backups," he said. "Finally I was one of those accidents. I got hit."
His fender-bender convinced him to try the train. Although ACE hasn't shortened his commute, the ride is more predictable and "definitely less stressful."
Joe Perry, who travels from Tracy, south of Stockton, to his accounting job in San Jose, agreed. "The train has improved my family life in general," said Perry, who recalled missing social events because of freeway traffic. "With a train, it's a lot nicer knowing that you're going to be home at a certain time."
Perry, with his laptop open in front of him, added that he is more productive now. "Before, when I got home, I'd work another 1 1/2 to two hours," he said. "Now I work on the train, and when I get home, I'm home."
ACE is a collaboration of San Joaquin, Alameda and Santa Clara counties, which provided the main financial backing through sales tax revenues, although some state funds were also used. The $50 million in start-up costs included buying the cars--decorated brightly with white, purple and blue bands--and upgrading portions of the track that ACE shares with freight lines. To supplement revenue from ticket sales, the counties are covering an additional $14 million in operation and management costs for the three-year trial phase.
The worsening traffic crunch was the motivation for the venture. Every weekday an estimated 36,000 drivers face up to two-hour commutes each way between the San Joaquin Valley and Silicon Valley. Transportation experts say the traffic in that corridor is increasing faster than anyplace else in the Bay Area as the search for affordable houses pushes more people farther into the exurbs.
"The rule of thumb today is that for every mile of commute that's outside the immediate Bay Area, you can reduce the housing cost by $2,000 to $3,000," said Mike Locke, president and chief executive officer of the San Joaquin Partnership, a private, nonprofit economic development organization.
Cheaper rents lured ACE passengers Teresa Dunuan and Sherry Clingan to Stockton. "We were sharing a room in a house for $850 per month in Fremont," said Clingan. "Now we're paying $800 for a three-bedroom, two-bath house."
So far, service is limited to two diesel trains a day, traveling an average of 79 mph. In the afternoon, trains leave San Jose at 4:14 and 5:44. ACE expects to add a third train within the next two years. ACE tickets can also be used for free shuttle and bus connections to work and home.
The morning runs include "quiet cars," where lights are dimmed so passengers can sleep through dawn. This time of year, day breaks about when the first train pulls past the southernmost tip of San Francisco Bay. Some passengers read, others tap away at their laptops, and some simply stare out the windows.
There are nine stations, three of which are shared by Amtrak. Although accommodations at some stations are spare, passengers said they were pleased with the conditions on the train, even pointing out the clean, roomy bathroom in each car.