Bakersfield is a big freight train hub and much of its history is steeped in smoke and gear grease.
But is it a passenger train town?
Will it be a decade from now?
Currently, seven Amtrak trains running north from Bakersfield are the only passenger rail link to northern California.
But Kern County is the end of the line, linking to the south and east only by Amtrak connecting busses.
Kern County has tenuous connections with the organizations planning the future of its passenger rail connections. And transportation planners here question rail's role in the county’s transit future.
There is a bit of internal disagreement over Amtrak in Kern County that has developed in the past few days.
Mike Turnipseed of the Kern County Taxpayers’ Association is spearheading a push to appeal to the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority, which runs the passenger rail system.
He thinks plans by the Authority to start a new express service to Sacramento should be changed to include Bakersfield as a logical starting point.
Current plans are to begin the run in Fresno, Kern’s bigger cousin two hours to the north.
But Turnipseed’s idea isn’t getting a lot of boost from the Kern Council of Governments – the county’s transportation data house and planning agency.
KernCOG Executive Director Ahron Hakimi said Kern County’s passenger service has a logistical problem that’s difficult to overcome.
He travels to Sacramento often for business.
“The reason why I very rarely use Amtrak is because it’s very slow,” he said. “I would ride Amtrak if it was faster.”
The trains, he said, run on tracks owned by freight rail companies, and any schedule shifts, speed increases or service enhancements cannot get in the way of those non-passenger trains.
“We only have a single track that comes into Bakersfield,” he said. “You have 40-plus freight trains coming through Bakersfield every day.”
And trains have a tendency to be late.
People won’t ride the train, he said, “unless the San Joaquins get significantly faster and improve their on-time performance.”
Dan Leavitt, manager of regional initiatives for the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority, said there are only two round-trip trains along the San Joaquins line each day.
The route, speed and time restrictions on Amtrak trains make trips between Bakersfield and Sacramento difficult.
A passenger who hops the 6:25 p.m. train north ends up on a platform in downtown Sacramento at midnight, he said.
Hakimi said most people from Bakersfield will simply climb in their car and drive.
If he can carpool with other Kern County folks, more the better.
A SEAT AT THE TABLE
Leavitt said the Joint Powers Authority is working hard to address all the issues that have triggered a decline in ridership.
They are working with the freight lines to increase train speeds to 90 miles per hour on segments of the track where possible.
And they are fighting to increase their on-time performance.
But the Joint Powers Authority business plan shows that most of the improvements on the system in the last 24 years — $303 million of improvements — have been dedicated to the system as it runs north of Fresno.
Turnipseed argues that Kern County is never going to see improvements to its Amtrak service unless it gets a seat at the Joint Powers Authority table.
“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. You have to be at the table to protect what we have and get a little bit more,” he said.
KernCOG has the right to claim a seat. But it hasn’t chosen to and Hakimi argues against it.
A good portion of the funding for the Joint Powers Authority comes from the state of California. That funding will expire in three years, unless it is refreshed, and if that happens he believes the authority will come to member agencies with their hand out.
And spending money on rail, he said, is not the top priority of Kern County residents, Hakimi said.
Kern County is in the midst of a massive road-building push and is struggling to maintain a massive network of roads.
KernCOG has conducted multiple surveys of citizens as part of its regular work.
“What the people of Kern County have said — what they’ve told us repeatedly — they want us to fix and maintain and finish what we have,…to fix the roads that we have first,” Hakimi said.
That doesn’t mean that KernCOG isn’t participating in what the Joint Powers Authority is doing.
“The COG has been very active,” Leavitt said. “We have a technical advisory group that the COG is really involved in. They understand what we’re trying to do and why.”
But Kern County, he said, is the only “potential member agency that has not joined at this time.”
Turnipseed said Kern County may not see a value to having a seat on the voting body of the Joint Powers Authority. But every other county does.
Even Tulare County, which does not have an Amtrak rail station and connects only through busses, recently added a member to the Joint Powers Authority Board, Turnipseed said.
THE FUTURE OF RAIL
So what will Kern County’s relationship be with passenger rail in the future?
Hakimi said they have studied the idea of building light-rail links between Bakersfield and the communities of Wasco and Delano where prison jobs employ thousands of Bakersfield residents.
They’ve also looked at connecting Rosamond in southeastern Kern County to the Los Angeles basin light-rail systems.
“Both those studies found that it’s not yet financially feasible,” Hakimi said.
And then there is the California High-Speed-Rail project that is under construction, heading south toward Bakersfield from Fresno.
“High-speed rail is more than a decade away,” Hakimi said.
And political squabbles between the City of Bakersfield and the California High-Speed-Rail Authority over the proper location of the Bakersfield station have led to plans for the high-speed route terminating the construction phase north of Bakersfield in Shafter.
Leavitt said Amtrak will still have a viable life as a short-distance train and feeder service to high-speed-rail. And they’re planning to strengthen that connection.
And that’s where passengers are going to get their swift service to distant locations.
“We view express as being the realm of high-speed rail,” he said. “We’ve been talking about adding more stations so we are complementary to high-speed rail.”
Turnipseed said high-speed-rail will be a solution for Bakersfield — but not for a very long time.
“High-speed rail is supposed to be for the long-distance rider — to get you out of airports,” he said. “High-speed-rail is not going to Sacramento for ever and ever and ever.”
Hakimi questions how new vehicle technology will impact future rail service plans across the state.
“We’re within five years of you being able to jump in your car and push a button and say, ‘Drive me to Sacramento,’” he said. “Why do I ride (a train) if I can get into my autonomous vehicle?”