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Bringing back Tidewater passenger rail service

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POSTED March 14, 2010 3:31 a.m.
There was a time when 24 passenger trains passed through Manteca daily to take you to Stockton or Modesto.

It was 1916. It was the salad days for passenger service on the now defunct Tidewater Southern. It took 65 minutes to go from Modesto to Stockton on the electric interburban passenger trains. At one point there was talk of extending the Tidewaiter south into Turlock and ultimately into Bakersfield and Los Angeles as an alternative to the monopolistic Southern Pacific.

The trains were powered by electricity from 1913 until 1932 when the frequency of trips was reduced to eight a day. The Tidewater Southern passenger service came to an end on May 26, 1932 thanks to the growing dominance of the automobile.

Now some 68 later there is talk of bringing back intercity valley service in the form of electric light rail train sets such as those that serve San Jose and Sacramento.

Train service was also doomed in California for another reason – the need for increased mobility. As towns spread out and people started going to the next town for jobs trains simply didn’t run to where people wanted them to go or when they wanted them.

The idea of Californians relaxing their death grip on steering wheels struck many as blasphemy not too long ago in San Joaquin County. But the vision of men like the late Bob Cabral – a farmer by trade – who believed Californians would commute by train gave birth to the Altamont Commuter Express service that ranks as one of the nation’s most successful commute lines in terms of use and fare box recovery.

Even before the first ACE train rolled from Stockton to San Jose, Cabral envisioned the day there would be a reverse commute that would spur economic development in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. The concept was key in attract research and development folks or essential managers who preferred the lifestyle of the Bay Area would ride ACE eastbound to reach valley employment centers where firms could enjoy lower cost labor for production work.

That vision may become reality in the next generation as ACE moves forward with its own high speed train project to cut the travel time between San Jose and Manteca by more than 50 percent.

The economic importance of passenger rail servcie can’t be emphasized enough. It’s not just traditional commuters who take ACE to better paying jobs in the Bay Area while leaving their car behind. A number of low-skilled workers have also used the train to go from Stockton to higher paying “menial jobs” in San Jose. One such rider profiled five years ago had two children she supported by working at a McDonald’s near downtown San Jose for 30 hours a week at $11 an hour. The train made it possible for her to support her family without spending a fortune to commute. It also allowed her to access a low skill job that would have paid $4 plus an hour less in Stockton for a wage that provided a decent living in Stockton.

The first thing a valley rail system powered by electricity would do is help the Northern San Joaquin Valley literally save the economy from choking to death. Looming federal mandates to clean the San Joaquin Valley air even more zero in on carbon emissions of which automobiles are the No. 1 culprit. It is a mandate that can’t be sidestepped given the valley’s perpetual No. 1 or No. 2 status as the worst air basin in the country for air quality in terms of certain pollutants. One can also not ignore those nasty federal penalties.

A rail system could also change the course of development and economic fortunes.

Having true transit communities that feature residential, retail, entertainment and job centers will not only reduce air pollution but increase economic opportunities.

Imagine the ability for a college student to be able to go from Manteca to Turlock to attend California State University at Stanislaus. Access to post secondary education would be easier for those in valley towns.

Light rail – unlike heavy rail or high speed rail – has a huge advantage. Modesto and Stockton could very easily develop spur lines that access major destinations.

In Stockton, service could run down March Lane to access Delta College, the University of the Pacific, Weber Point, the Stockton Arena, the Ports baseball stadium, and a host of major retail.

Light rail – unlike its older cousin that used interburban cars that are similar to the municipal railroad cars in San Francisco – actually can serve denser areas than 70 years ago. That, in itself, is a prerequisite toward making rail effective in terms of encouraging people to use it and consequently generating revenue needed to match at least half of the fare box if not more.
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