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Trains ease commute, bolster economy
An Altamont Corridor Express train leaves the Pleasanton station. - photo by Photo Contributed

It was “all aboard” the Altamont Corridor Express Thursday morning for some two dozen Manteca, Lathrop and Ripon community leaders to see for themselves how ACE serves thousands of riders a day on four trains.

ACE plans to expand its service into Stanislaus County in a bid to reduce freeway congestion for Bay Area commuters and boost the Central Valley economy.  They offer people the opportunity to experience commuting via train from the valley to learn more about its operation by offering three gratis passes to anyone just for the asking on their website.

A common thread running between ACE leadership and the communities it services is the “regional economic impact” of the ACE rail system expansion cities in five counties.

The new train station on Moffat Boulevard underscored the interest of Manteca community leaders as they boarded a 7:24 a.m. promotional ACE train to San Jose with their counterparts from Lathrop, Ripon, Modesto, Turlock  and as far away as Stockton and Merced complete with a stop at  the new 49ers Levi Stadium.

The future calls for ACE riders to be boarding at the new Manteca station as well as stations in Ripon, Modesto, Turlock, Livingston and Merced.  The cost of the rail expansion to Modesto of some $200 million is expected to be borne by the three counties most involved with the ridership, Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Santa Clara.

The extension of ACE service to Merced from Modesto is set at $350 million. The addition of the seventh to the tenth train is estimated at another $200 million.

The train averages speeds of 45 miles an hour through the Altamont Pass contrasts with backed up and sometimes stopped commuter traffic on the 580 corridor.  Thursday’s motor vehicles on commute routes were moving at about 10 miles an hour.  The rail line to the west from Manteca was built in the 1850s as a freight line and has required upgrades to handle the ACE passenger traffic.

The route is now heralded as an “easy access” to San Jose, San Jose Airport and to the 49ers Levi’s Stadium for games.  There have been special shopping trains offered in the past, but the lack of interest canceled that effort, according to an ACE spokesman.  A panel of three Manteca area residents spoke telling how they were able to work in the Silicon Valley and still keep up with their responsibilities at home — two with children in school and in sports programs.

The speakers were Jean Hernandez, Marlene Goodall and Marlene Vida.

Students and instructors from Stanford University and San Jose State are being offered a 50 per cent discount with hopes Santa Clara University can soon be added to that list. Senior citizens are also being offered discount rides.

There were also several representatives present from the Councils of Government from both San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties.

A dimly lit “Quiet Car” is offered daily where riders can catch a little extra sleep.  Thursday’s riders from the valley were led to a second level where they could enjoy each other’s company and converse as they chose meeting their counterparts from the other communities.

ACE owns some $70 million in rolling stock in diesel engines and cars along with $76 million in facilities and $113 million in upgraded rail infrastructure.

Riders from Manteca included Realtor Wendy Benevidas who said she and other Realtors routinely boast the availability of ACE to potential home buyers.  Joann Beattie, director of Manteca’s Chamber of Commerce joined the group as did Ripon Chamber President John Mangelos and his Executive Director Tamra Spade.  Manteca Economic Development Director Don Smail was also on hand for the trip and its presentations along with mayoral candidate Ben Cantu. 

Stacy Mortensen, CEO of the ACE train since its inception 15 years ago, spoke before the group in a downtown San Jose conference room said.

“We are at a point that we have to start thinking about a fifth train,” Mortensen said. “We follow what happens in the Silicon Valley — it powers us.”

Mortensen also told of a plan to create a tunnel in the Altamont to speed up trips.

The train allows for computer engineers and others in the high paying technology fields to consider the Valley for lower priced homes bringing those professionals to the cities of Stockton, Manteca, Modesto and hopefully as far south as Merced.  The two-hour trip to and from work allows them more time to work on their ongoing projects using Wi-Fi in some of the cars.  All the ACE cars will soon have the Wi-Fi connections.

“We have great shuttles,” Mortensen said of the connections to work sites after the train trip.  “Some take as much as 40 minute shuttle drives. We have a big partnership with transit groups.  We don’t charge for parking and we don’t charge for the shuttles now.” 

The ACE leader said there are normally some 18 shuttles waiting near the tracks on each train arrival where within two minutes many passengers disappear into the Santa Clara community. The service also connects with BART.  The bulk of the passengers from San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties are going all the way to San Jose, she said.

There is a drop off of passengers in Pleasanton making room for new riders boarding at that station on their way to San Jose.  When passengers arrive at their destination in San Jose there is always an ACE employee identified by his hat who directs riders unsure of just where to go from the terminal.

A recent survey of ACE riders indicated that nearly 37 percent of them brought their work with them so they could best use the time on the train.  Others told of making business calls on their cell phones and commuting through use of their email and their laptop computers.

The study also indicated that ACE riders, who work while they are on board, represent a collec-tive value of their work time at $12.5 million.  Current on savings of commuting costs came in at $11.8 million annually. 

Expansion projects to increase the reliability of ACE include the upgrading of new and upgraded siding, track realignment and the building of new rail connections in planned stages with service targeted to extend to Modesto by 2020.  With the launching of service to Modesto two additional trains will be added to the system.  Extension of service to Merced is slated for 2025 with an increase to 10 weekly daily trains.

Service is also expected to be extended to the weekends with the earlier operation of six trains.