The ride of their lives

Extreme commuters are up at 4 a.m., travel 150 miles to their jobs, work a full day and then come back home. At least these people have a train—the Capitol Corridor—to help carry the load.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Downtown Sacramento is silent and deserted at 4 a.m. Yellow traffic lights flash mindlessly above empty intersections. But at the I Street train station, the ticket counter is open for business, and the first Capitol Corridor train of the day is already idling at the platform, its windows glowing brightly. When the Bay Area-bound train pulls out at 4:25 a.m., easing across the river where the glowing golden tops of the Tower Bridge vanish in low fog, the seven passengers barely outnumber the four crew members. But more people will board as the sun rises and the train moves west.

This is the newest train on the Capitol Corridor schedule, and, even though it departs while everyone else is snoozing, it has been adding new riders steadily since its introduction on January 6.

One car, at the rear of the train, is the quiet car, where talking and typing and cellphones are off-limits. On early-morning runs like this one, the lights are off, and passengers curl up in blue airline-style seats that recline just enough to make sleep a little easier—not that it’s difficult in the dead of night.

As the train picks up speed across the Yolo Causeway, those commuters who aren’t asleep come to the cafe car for coffee to get themselves going.

The Capitol Corridor is a going concern, one of the fastest growing intercity rail lines in the country. It boasts double-digit ridership gains every year. The 170-mile line stops in 16 cities, from Auburn to Sacramento to Oakland to San Jose.

These days, as public-transportation systems and airlines fight to hang on, the Capitol Corridor is carrying more people than it ever has—all without increasing its own budget.

The most recent ridership figures show that the number of passengers who rode in December set a new record, bringing the total for the month up 14.5 percent from where it was during the previous December. A month after the 4:25 a.m. train started running, ridership had hit about 100 people per trip—eclipsing projections.

The passengers on this train are extreme commuters. Up since about 3:30 a.m., they are from the Sacramento area and bound for cities like Richmond, Hayward or even San Jose, where they will work all day before making the trip home at night.

Their commutes may seem like punishment worthy of a daredevil reality show, but these regulars are grateful to get a ride.

Marlene Martinez, who lives in Sacramento, recently started teaching biology at UC Berkeley. That means she’s up at 3:30 a.m. and back home in the late afternoon or evening. The 4:25 a.m. train is the only one that gets her to school on time.

“I was driving,” says Martinez, who’s thinking about moving closer to work next semester. “Oh my God, that was miserable. It was dark and foggy and raining, and the drivers are crazy. Then, by Vallejo, the traffic is bad. I did the drive for a week, and I was a mess, so I don’t care that this takes me an extra half hour or hour.” The ride gives her time to get started on work—if she can stay awake. “I can get an hour and a half of uninterrupted work done.”

After driving for three years, Roseville resident Lonnie Miller now takes the train most of the way to the Safeway store he manages in Hayward—something he chose to do rather than buy a home in the Bay Area. “You’d arrive at work so exhausted. In the fog, you have the window open, listening for crashes,” he says. This way, he can take care of some work. Four days a week, he drives to Sacramento to board the train, which means he’s up at 3:15 a.m. and home as late as 9:30 p.m. “After driving for three years, this became an answer to my burnout.”

By 5:48 a.m., after crossing the Carquinez Strait, the Capitol Corridor winds along the dark edge of San Pablo Bay. When it pulls into Berkeley at 6:10 a.m., there’s a small group waiting in the darkness on the platform. This is the halfway point, where the train starts filling with passengers headed to Silicon Valley. On this particular day, one passenger who boarded in the East Bay sleeps soundly, wearing earmuffs and wraparound sunglasses, his mouth slightly open.

The service has a loyal following among regular riders. Commuters who get to know one another on the train make friends with people they wouldn’t otherwise know. Some riders who catch the single round-trip each day from Sacramento to Auburn regularly host parties on Fridays.

But there’s one kink in the system that even the most enthusiastic riders grumble about: frequent delays, usually caused by freight trains that share the tracks and have priority.

At 6:30 a.m., the train is blasting through the junkyards and warehouses between Oakland and Hayward as the gray light comes up behind the East Bay hills.

One of the things commuters love most about riding the train is that it gives them extra time to catch up on office work—or not.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Antoine Gomez, who lives in Sacramento and works as a computer network engineer in Santa Clara, is more animated than most people would be at this hour. He’s glad he’s not driving. “I’m stoked,” says Gomez, wearing headphones and tapping away on a laptop. “I’m productive. I’m efficient. I’m happy.”

Asked why he wants to work 120 miles from home, Gomez cites the same reason for his marathon commute as many others: Housing is cheaper in the Central Valley.

“When you go to purchase a house in Silicon Valley, you can’t buy a home unless you’re one of those stock-rich millionaires.” Gomez says he used to live in the South Bay. Then, on trips to his company’s data centers in Sacramento, he started noticing the price of real estate.

By 7 a.m., as the early-morning train chugs out of Fremont, the red glow of dawn hangs over new tract homes.

Relaxing in the cafe car with her hands wrapped around a cup of hot coffee, Linda Desai looks less like a harried commuter and more like a figure from a cruise-ship ad. Desai says she’s used several different ways to get from home in Hayward to Santa Clara, where she’s an engineer for a company that manufactures chip-making equipment. She’s combined car, bike, BART, bus, carpool, telecommuting and even Altamont Commuter Express, the Stockton-to-San Jose rail line.

“This is the most civilized way to travel,” she says. “It’s very relaxing. I sleep or work or plan my day.”

Since finding the Capitol Corridor, she’s been given to evangelism.

“I’m a public-transportation true believer. I’ve been riding BART since the day it opened. We need to do this. I have so many converts with people at work. I’ve got other people to ride the train.”

South of Fremont, the last leg of the trip cuts across the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wild-life Refuge at the southernmost end of the bay. Peering out the window at salt ponds and tidal marshes, Desai, a birdwatcher, says this is the best part of the trip. “I see all kinds of birds: hawks, pheasant, egrets, pelicans,” she says. Behind her, the sun rising above the low mountains is reflected on the smooth waters as several hundred seagulls all take flight at once.

The train pulls into Santa Clara, the second-to-last stop, at 7:30 a.m. Passengers hop off and hurry to vans, buses or the nearby light-rail station.

Desai steps off with her bike and pedals the rest of the way to work, about 10 minutes away. Gomez, the network engineer, also gets off—three hours after boarding in Sacramento. He walks across the street; gets in a small, brown Toyota he keeps at the station; and drives the rest of the way to work. He’ll be at his desk by 8 a.m.

Caltrans started running the first Capitol Corridor trains in 1991, but by 1995, with four trains, ridership and revenues looked so bad that the state almost pulled the plug. The near-death prompted creation in 1998 of the eight-county Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority (CCJPA) that runs things now.

The CCJPA is a fairly unique setup. There’s really no railroad to speak of. All ticketing, operations and maintenance are contracted out to Amtrak. Caltrans owns the trains and covers about 60 percent of the $32 million operating budget. The CCJPA has 16 board members, two elected officials from each county it serves. Administrative duties are handled by BART, which has 10 employees dedicated to running the Capitol Corridor trains out of its offices in Oakland. Union Pacific owns the tracks and handles traffic control. It allows access in exchange for payments that fund track and signal upgrades. The Capitol Corridor also has a network of feeder buses that run everywhere from Monterey to Reno to Santa Rosa, but they’re owned by private-sector operators driving under contract. (The trains wear Amtrak and Caltrans logos on the outside, but there’s really no hint of BART’s role, except for one thing: BART tickets are available in the cafe car at a 20-percent discount.)

The small administrative staff includes the CCJPA’s managing director, Eugene Skoropowski. The multi-agency arrangement, Skoropowski said, “buys us a public service at a fraction of what it costs to build it and run it and maintain it ourselves.”

As the Capitol Corridor’s popularity took off in the last few years, Skoropowski got most of the credit.

“All this business needs is someone who believes in it,” Skoropowski said, with just a hint of his Boston accent. “There’s a role for passenger trains that has been unrecognized for a long time.”

Standing inside the cavernous old Sacramento depot, Skoropowski waited for a train back to his East Bay home on a January afternoon. He’d been in Sacramento for a day of meetings and was lugging around a white cardboard box filled with reports to digest over the weekend.

Photo by Larry Dalton

With white hair and wearing a blue suit, Skoropowski, 58, looked like any other business traveler, right down to the ticket, which he had bought like anyone else would.

One rider who recognized him chatted him up while he waited. Ernie Schulzke, a judge heading home to Auburn, knows Skoropowski from seeing him onboard. “He’s performed a miracle in terms of the service,” Schulzke said. “We still have problems, but they’re getting better.”

As he walked out to the platform, Skoropowski bumped into conductors who knew him and stopped to talk. They appeared to get a kick out of seeing him around.

Skoropowski, too, seemed to like this part of the job: being out there, talking to passengers and employees. He tries to be visible by mingling with riders, who contact him with suggestions, complaints and praise.

If someone’s mad about a problem, he said, even if it’s something like an unavoidable delay, explaining the situation to a disgruntled passenger can make a lot of difference, even if it’s just to show that someone is paying attention.

Skoropowski started thinking that way when he was a kid.

Growing up in a blue-collar suburb of Boston, Skoropowski learned as a young paperboy that customers love getting a dry paper right on their doorstep. The extra effort generated big tips, and subscribers requested him. It showed him that little things please people.

Ironically, he got into the transit business as an unhappy customer. “I became an angry rider,” he said.

In the early 1970s, Skoropowski commuted to downtown Boston, where he worked as an architect. Service was awful. Rain leaked into rail cars. But when commuter lines were to be phased out, Skoropowski and others created a citizens’ group. They objected and successfully pushed for Boston to be the first city allowed to use highway money for mass transit.

As an activist, Skoropowski became friends with David Gunn, who ran “The T,” or the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

“I’d go to dinner at his house once a week or so, and we’d plot and scheme how to save commuter rail,” said Gunn, now president of Amtrak. “And we did it.”

They got help from former Democratic presidential nominee Mike Dukakis, who, in 1974, was a Massachusetts state representative running for governor. Dukakis met with Skoropowski and a dozen other rail activists trying to keep the commuter trains running. Dukakis, a rail proponent, listened carefully. As governor, he later presided over a state takeover of the failing rail lines, which handed the routes to the MBTA. Today, Dukakis is vice-chairman of Amtrak’s board of directors.

Skoropowski got into the rail business for the first time in 1977, when Gunn recruited him to oversee MBTA’s new commuter-rail services. Gunn later ran Philadelphia’s transit system and hired Skoropowski, who spent nine years there before taking a private-sector job with an engineering firm.

Then, at a 1999 transit conference, Skoropowski bumped into Tom Margro, an old co-worker from Philly who is now BART’s general manager. He mentioned that the Capitol Corridor was looking for a director. Skoropowski got the job.

When Skoropowski started work three months later, the Capitol Corridor wasn’t looking good. Caltrans wanted to cut funds for service to Roseville, Rocklin, Auburn and Colfax within 30 days.

Then-Senator Tim Leslie, R-Roseville, leaned on Caltrans for a stay of execution. “Our objective was to buy a little time,” Leslie said. “Meantime, Skoropowski hit the drawing boards.”

The answer was in reworking the schedule.

Card games often break out on Friday-evening trains. Go fish.

Photo by Larry Dalton

“We came back with something called the February 2000 Plan,” Skoropowski said. It restructured the timetable and cut service back by one station so that it ended at Auburn instead of Colfax. That saved enough money to keep service to Auburn and add more trips on other parts of the route—all for the same level of state funding. “That’s what really started the big ridership growth. The first year of operation, ridership grew 17 percent. The following year, with this plan, it went up 40 percent. The following year, when we added the eighth and ninth trains, it went up another 41 percent.”

Sacramento County Supervisor Roger Dickinson, a CCJPA board member, watched the turnaround. “It was on the verge of extinction. Now, it’s more popular every day, and a lot of that has to do with Gene [Skoropowski].”

Last year, Skoropowski wanted more state money for increased service. He didn’t get it, so he found a way to add three round-trip trains for the same cost instead. (Because of the state budget crisis, funding levels will stay the same next year.)

One example, Skoropowski said, is an evening train that runs from Sacramento to Oakland. The train frequently needed to go from Sacramento to the Amtrak maintenance facility in Oakland at the end of the day, and it made the trip empty. Then the CCJPA put it on the schedule so it could pick up passengers on the way. It doesn’t have a lot of regular riders, but the run carries as many as 200 passengers on weekends.

It’s easy to see the increase by looking at the three latest timetables. April 2002 showed 18 weekday trains between Auburn and San Jose. October 2002 showed 20 trains. And the most recent, January 2003, showed 22 trains. That kind of growth is almost unheard of in the commuter-rail business. It’s also the key to attracting riders: Increased frequency brings in new customers.

Passengers responded. Last year, 1.08 million people boarded the Capitols—twice as many as in 1998. In the same four-year period, fare revenues doubled, the percentage of costs covered by fares increased by a third, and cost per passenger-mile dropped by a quarter. (One-way fares run $4 to $18.)

While the image of California is one in which everyone drives, it’s not as true as it used to be. Californians are embracing rail like never before. Caltrans funds two other in-state lines like the Capitols: the San Joaquins from Bakersfield to Sacramento and Oakland, and the Pacific Surfliners from San Luis Obispo to San Diego. Ridership is increasing on both, but the Surfliner is the country’s second-busiest intercity rail line, at 1.5 million passengers per year.

The CCJPA has tried new approaches to attract riders. Last year, it kicked off a new business class for riders willing to pay more for a guaranteed seat and laptop outlet. Last month, the CCJPA started a massage-therapy pilot program, bringing in a certified therapist to give neck and shoulder massages for $1 per minute on one Sacramento-bound afternoon train.

Some of the most grateful commuters are the ones who come down from the foothill cities that almost lost service. One train comes down from Auburn to Sacramento in the morning, and there’s a single return trip in the evening. Feeder buses make the trip at off-peak hours.

These commuters form a tight-knit bunch that calls itself the CC Riders (a nod to the Ma Rainey song). They regularly host theme parties on the train. On a recent Friday, it was a luau with food and Hawaiian songs. At Christmas, riders brought home-brewed beer, and a band played on St. Patrick’s Day.

Chuck Robuck, who lives in Newcastle, runs the CC Riders Web page (, and he e-mails Skoropowski about once a week. When there’s a party planned, Robuck asks Skoropowski to put one of the old-style cafe cars on the evening train because the layout inside is better for socializing. If it’s not a problem, Skoropowski will. “He’s extremely responsive,” Robuck said.

Skoropowski gets a lot of e-mails. If they don’t know his face, many riders know his name. Skoropowski regularly distributes a “Message to Riders,” which includes his e-mail address. (Looking for him? It’s So, he hears about almost everything, even the cafe car’s menu.

“I wrote him when they took away the cinnamon-raisin bagels,” said Bob Gagen, a Contra Costa County Sheriff’s deputy heading home from Martinez to Woodland. “Another woman wrote when the Cheerios were gone.”

Gagen, who said he wouldn’t work where he does without the train, is part of an increasing number of evening commuters who come home to the Sacramento region from Bay Area jobs.

In the long term, Skoropowski and the board want faster trips and hourly departures in each direction, which would use the remaining capacity allowed under the agreement with Union Pacific.

Agencies in California and Nevada are studying a possible extension to Reno, and a four-county group is proposing a new Auburn-to-Dixon commuter line that could end up partnering with the Capitol Corridor. Union Pacific, however, wants money for new tracks before that happens.

While the Capitol Corridor expands, Amtrak is still on life-support, dependent on the whims of a stingy Congress. Skoropowski’s old friend Gunn—who is revered as a no-BS turnaround artist who rescued transit systems in New York; Washington, D.C.; and Toronto—said the Capitol Corridor model of state funding and local control could be one of the ways to save the national rail system.

Capitol Corridor Director Gene Skoropowski gets most of the credit for turning around the rail line, which is a partnership between Caltrans, Amtrak and eight counties.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Dukakis, too, said trains that run between different cities don’t have access to federal funds the way highways, airports and subways do. Amtrak board members like what they see in the California model, he said, and how well it’s working. “It has a lot to do with the fact that the state not only contributes but also has a strong interest in the success of those trains,” Dukakis said. The Capitol Corridor and other intercity trains, however, would be a lot better off if the federal government would step up with dedicated, dependable funding for them, Dukakis said. “I hope one of these days, the United States of America wakes up and starts committing itself to the kind of thing we’re talking about. It’s really just beyond my comprehension why we have so badly neglected rail in this country. It just doesn’t make any sense, and now we’re paying for it. I mean, I don’t have to tell you what the freeways are like.”

Regardless of whether the federal funding ever materializes, Skoropowski said he’ll keep trying to improve the Capitols. He even turned down Gunn’s invitation to work at Amtrak a couple years ago. “I said, ‘I think it’ll be a lot nicer to have you working for me as a contractor than me working for you.’ This is the best job I’ve ever had.”

At times, though, it can be trying—especially dealing with the unpredictable nature of sharing Union Pacific tracks with the company’s lumbering freight trains.

Making things worse is the state of the rail freight business, which is booming. Union Pacific’s Roseville railyard is one of the country’s busiest, and the Port of Oakland just opened a new intermodal facility to load and unload containers on trains.

According to Skoropowski, Capitols run on time about 77 percent to 80 percent of the time. “Not good enough,” he said.

Last fall, when the chronic delays got really bad, Skoropowski cut the price of tickets for regular riders in December as a way to make up for the inconvenience.

In late January, operators started holding a San Jose-bound Capitol train as it came into the South Bay. That let the Sacramento-bound train squeeze past along a single-track section so it could get started on schedule. It worked for a while, until a derailment blocked tracks between Davis and Sacramento. Though one track was re-opened overnight, Union Pacific gave freight trains priority in the morning. Passengers on early morning trains, including the one departing Sacramento at 4:25 a.m., wasted an hour sitting on the Yolo Causeway.

Skoropowski spent the following day handling the fallout and posted an apologetic letter on the Web site to riders. “While it would be expected that there may be some minor passenger-train delays into and out of Sacramento in the morning,” he wrote, “what happened to this morning’s passenger-train service was an operating disaster for passengers.”

But, though Union Pacific usually gets painted as the bad guy when it gets in the way of passenger trains, Skoropowski said the railroad has been really responsive, even bringing out a network infrastructure manager from its headquarters in Omaha to handle California’s growing passenger-rail market.

At the height of the evening commute, the Sacramento-bound train, No. 540, is packed as it rumbles across a bridge high above the Carquinez Strait. The black water below reflects the full moon, hanging high in the sky above the orange lights of distant refineries. The train is about an hour late.

Still, commuters don’t seem to let it dampen their devotion to the service. Because this is one of the trains that originates in San Jose, it’s often stuck in that single-track bottleneck. At the same time, passengers say, trains from Oakland run like clockwork.

“This train has been late every day,” says San Francisco attorney Amy Whitney, riding home to Sacramento at a table with a bottle of Sierra Nevada and an open laptop. Whitney’s co-worker, Adela Arevalo, shrugs it off, saying the train makes possible her very long commute from San Francisco to Yuba City. (San Francisco-bound passengers can catch feeder buses in Emeryville or transfer to BART in Richmond.) The trip takes Arevalo about three hours, but she doesn’t see it as a huge sacrifice. When people ask, she tells them it’s time she might have wasted at home watching TV. “People say, ‘You’re crazy,’ but I don’t think about it.”

To make sure their train is on time before they leave work, some regulars call Amtrak’s 800 number or check its Web site for arrival information. And there’s a new monitoring method on the way. Though it won’t make trains run on time, the Capitols are getting new GPS transponders this spring that will relay the train’s arrival time via satellite to message signs at stations, so waiting passengers don’t have to wonder. The system has been installed, and it should be up and running within a couple months.

There is a permanent solution on the way, too. Work begins this spring to add a second track on the Yolo Causeway, and those South Bay bottlenecks also will be double-tracked later this year or next year. Both projects are part of a total of $88 million in track and signal improvements that the CCJPA is funding along the route. Skoropowski is also participating in the planning process for the long-awaited redevelopment of the Sacramento downtown railyards, which will turn the historic Southern Pacific depot into a transportation hub at the edge of a new downtown district. As an architect, he sees the incredible potential of the abandoned industrial area. But as the CCJPA’s director, he’s really interested in fixing up the historic depot and the areas around it. Sacramento makes up 20 percent of the Capitol Corridor trains’ market.

As the train descends from the bridge on the Benicia side, there is a long line at the counter in the cafe car, but instead of the coffee passengers were looking for in the morning, evening passengers are lined up mostly for beer.

Up and down the train, there’s a lot going on: Passengers are eating, drinking, reading, working, chatting, laughing, playing cards, grading papers, thumbing through the newspaper and knitting. It’s like a long, crowded living room. Many passengers are using laptops, including a couple of guys watching DVDs on theirs.

Carrie Smith, a long-distance rider whose twice-weekly trip gets her most of the way from her Grass Valley home to acupuncture class in Oakland, says she called once to complain about some trains running late. “They were very nice,” she says. “They sent me a 25-percent-off coupon. … It could be worse. I could be in my car.”

The train continues through the darkness, discharging commuters in Fairfield and Davis. Finally, it crosses the river into Sacramento. The train, due in Sacramento at 6:50 p.m., arrives after 8. It squeals to a halt, and passengers stream out of the doors onto neon-lit platforms. Some walk quickly into the parking lot, where the cars they left here all day waited patiently for their owners to return.