Before ACE passenger trains zip over the Altamont at speeds approaching 150 mph the odds are conventional trains will do so at speeds around 90 mph.
That’s because the first step toward converting the Altamont Commuter Express service to high speed rail entails securing new right-of-way across the hills separating the East Bay from the San Joaquin Valley. The current tracks shared with Union Pacific often force ACE trains to slow down at times to 15 mph or - in worst case scenarios - wait on freight trains.
Union Pacific declined to sell the existing tracks to ACE. The reason is freight traffic is expected to pick up significantly especially when UP shifts intermodal operations from the Port of Oakland to the Lathrop intermodal facility they plan on more than tripling in size.
The roughly two-hour and 10-minute trip to San Jose from the Lathrop-Manteca station would be reduced to 90 minutes with simply improved tracks for heavy rail trains. High speed rail would cut that time even further to 55 minutes.
The future of ACE high speed rail - or even simply improved tracks for heavy rail use that could switch to high speed rail at a later date - is joined at the hip with the California High Speed Rail Project. The ACE project is guaranteed of getting some funding at part of the distribution of the $10 billion high speed rail bond approved by voters.
The current state budget included $5 million in transit money to allow ACE to continue planning for a new corridor and eventually high speed rail.
ACE spokesperson Thomas Reeves noted that “high speed rail may be something our children ride” but that a faster heavy rail ACE service is feasible with a much quicker time frame.
ACE is exploring extending service - heavy rail and possibly eventually high speed rail - to Sacramento and Merced.
Given the first complete operational segment of the California line will go from Los Angeles to San Francisco via the Pacheco Pass with a stop in Merced, ACE is planning to become a feeder train system for high speed rail long before high speed rail reaches Sacramento.
Travelers could board a heavy rail ACE train in Sacramento, Elk Grove, Lodi, Stockton, Manteca, and Modesto and then transfer to a high speed rail train in Merced.
It could also be possible to ride ACE trains between Sacramento and San Jose.
ACE trains have been in service for 13 years and transport 3,000 passengers on work days. The busiest stations for boarding vary between Lathrop-Manteca and Tracy.
Some 35 percent of the cost of running the system is recovered at the fare box. That is above average for commuter rail and train passenger service in general. The federal government requires public transit systems to aim for 25 percent recovery at the fare box.
At one time when the economy was humming, ACE covered 70 percent of its operational costs from ticket sales.