Amtrak plans new bus service from Madera. Here’s what it means for train passengers

A new Amtrak Thruway bus service is being planned to connect Madera’s Amtrak station to San Jose starting in the spring of 2020.

Dan Leavitt, manager of regional initiatives for the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority, said the bus connection will likely shave about an hour off of the travel time for train passengers going to the Bay Area compared with riding the train to Stockton and then transferring to buses or another train service to get to San Jose.

The San Joaquin JPA oversees Amtrak’s existing San Joaquin trains through the Valley between Bakersfield, Stockton, Oakland and Sacramento. Leavitt said the agency expects to seek bids for the Madera-San Jose bus service later this year and begin operations next April or May.

“This is something that our constituents and partners in Kern County have been asking for for a number of years,” Leavitt said. “We believe it will create a new market that isn’t being served today.”

Conceptual plans for the service are to operate two to three round trips daily with the buses between Madera and San Jose, coordinated with the Amtrak San Joaquin train schedule. Buses would be awaiting northbound passengers arriving on the train at Madera; once in San Jose, passengers can transfer to other transportation, including the Caltrain commuter rail service along the San Francisco Peninsula.

Buses coming to Madera from San Jose would be timed to meet southbound Amtrak trains through the Valley.

The San Joaquin train service already relies on Thruway buses to connect passengers from Stockton to either Sacramento or Oakland. Buses also carry Amtrak passengers between Bakersfield and Los Angeles’ Union Station. Thruway buses from Hanford run east to Visalia as well as west to San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria.

The planning comes as California’s embattled high-speed rail project, now under construction in the central and southern San Joaquin Valley, is falling under legislative scrutiny to potentially shift funding from the Valley to Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Such a development could short-circuit Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan – yet to be adopted by the California High-Speed Rail Authority – to establish an operating line of electrified bullet trains running between Merced and Bakersfield as an interim step toward future connections to the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

It could also run afoul of conditions in grant agreements between the federal government and the state that about $3 billion in stimulus funds awarded to California in 2010 be spent on construction in the San Joaquin Valley – even as the Trump administration has canceled another grant and threatens to seek repayment of the stimulus money that has already been spent.

The coming bus line between Madera and San Jose is not conditioned on anything that may happen to the high-speed rail project, which under the best of circumstances would not begin operating until 2028.

“This is something that’s going to be helpful immediately,” Leavitt said of the bus service. “As soon as we start running, we’ll be serving passengers.”

The San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission, which manages both the Amtrak San Joaquins service as well as the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) rail service between Stockton and San Jose, said it’s also not depending on high-speed rail to reach Merced for its own plans to extend the ACE train line south to Modesto and, ultimately, to Merced by 2027.

Connections to an expanded ACE service in Merced has been part of the rationale of high-speed rail planners to extend construction of the bullet-train line beyond Madera, the northernmost extent of the current construction contracts.

“We’ve always targeted Merced in two tiers,” said Stacey Mortensen, ACE executive director. “We want to get one or two trains daily down there, assuming that high-speed rail wouldn’t be there yet. As far as we’re concerned, we’re still planning like (high-speed rail) doesn’t even get to Merced. All it would mean is how many more trains we would need to have by the time high-speed rail gets there.”

Lifelong Valley resident Tim Sheehan has worked in the Valley as a reporter and editor since 1986, and has been at The Fresno Bee since 1998. He is currently The Bee’s data reporter and covers California’s high-speed rail project and other transportation issues. He grew up in Madera, has a journalism degree from Fresno State and a master’s degree in leadership studies from Fresno Pacific University.