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By Jack M. Turner

Following a pleasant overnight in San Jose and a midday visit with my uncle, aunt, and cousin in Menlo Park, I boarded Altamont Commuter Express train # 4 in San Jose.  This had long been high on my list of rail lines I wanted to ride and finally the opportunity arrived on Monday, September 21, 2015.

Altamont Commuter Express service began on October 19, 1998 with two morning westbound trains between Stockton and San Jose and two eastbound afternoon runs.  A third round trip was added on March 5, 2001 with a fourth roundtrip started on August 28, 2006.  The 82 mile trip takes slightly more than two hours while making eight intermediate stops and offers a scenic run through Niles Canyon and over Altamont Pass.  The line used by ACE belongs to Union Pacific Railroad and the route traces its lineage back to the Western Pacific Railroad Company.  During its WP days, the famed California Zephyr domeliner traversed the Altamont Pass line between Stockton and Fremont before turning north to Oakland.

Cab control car 3308 was on the head end of ACE train # 4 with five coaches following and F40PH # 3102 trailing.  Accessing the station platform via a tunnel brought back memories of such an arrangement at Jacksonville Terminal in Florida in the 1960s and early 70s.
My train departed from Track 2 at 3:35pm and the San Jose station was busy with Caltrain equipment bound for San Francisco and Amtrak Capitol Corridor trains to and from Sacramento via Oakland on adjacent tracks.  Train # 4 was the afternoon’s first departure from San Jose and later I would be relieved that I selected that departure to ensure an easy connection at Stockton.

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F40 # 3102 is set to push Altamont Commuter Express train # 4 from San Jose to Stockton on September 21, 2015


ACE # 4 is ready to receive passengers at San Jose


ACE coaches display an attractive paint scheme


A Caltrain Peninsula train seen at the San Jose station


Passing the Caltrain engine shops departing San Jose

Just 6 minutes after departing San Jose we made our first stop, Santa Clara, where a hearty contingent of passengers boarded.  A couple minutes later the Caltrain line to San Francisco branched to the left on its peninsula line through Palo Alto and Menlo Park.  Ten minutes later train # 4 stopped at the Great America stop adjacent to the San Francisco 49ers football stadium and the Great America theme park.  The lower level of my bi-level coach filled with commuters; I had chosen a seat on that level to keep an eye on my luggage since there was not a dedicated luggage storage area aboard this train. 

Salt marshes soon enveloped both sides of the railway and a southbound UP freight train passed as I noted large salt piles off to the left.  Just beyond this point the ACE route branched off from the line used by Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor trains.  We paused at Fremont at 4:10pm and ridership continued to be strong as several passengers boarded at each stop.  The Niles Canyon Railway, which offers public excursions on a scheduled basis, soon paralleled on the left as we entered scenic Niles Canyon and passed through a couple of tunnels.  That line once was part of Southern Pacific’s transcontinental railroad before being abandoned in 1984 in favor of the ex-WP line served by Altamont Commuter Express.


Estuaries and salt marshes are visible north of Santa Clara


Mountains appear near the railway east of Fremont


Approaching a rail junction east of Fremont


The ACE line passes through scenic Niles Canyon

Pleasanton was the next stop and a large number of detraining passengers were offset by a sizeable boarding crowd.  It was apparent from conversations that many of this train’s commuters are daily riders who have come to know one another and the train crew well.  The conductor was heard telling one of the regulars that his morning train had carried over 900 passengers on the westbound trip.  Meanwhile, word circulated that train # 6 which was due to depart San Jose momentarily at 4:35pm had been annulled due to engine problems and its coaches would be combined with train # 8 an hour later.  I had made the right decision to take the earliest ACE train as riding train # 8 would have fouled my Thruway bus connection from Stockton to Sacramento.

Two more stops, Livermore and Vasco, followed in the next 15 minutes then the rails made a sweeping curve to the right leading to Altamont Pass.  The pass featured golden colored mountains covered with giant wind turbines.  Below to the left the I-580 freeway was choked with homeward bound commuters giving evidence to the necessity for the ACE.  Many of the regular commuters lined up near the exit door 20 minutes before our next stop to ensure they got to their automobiles quickly upon arrival.  A passenger sitting beside me explained that the parking lot at Tracy only has one exit onto the street and that slow movers face a long delay getting onto the road.  Indeed as we arrived at Tracy at 5:19pm, many of these detraining commuters broke into a sprint in effort to be first out of the parking lot.  It was a sight to behold. 


Congested freeway scenes around Altamont Pass underscore the advantage of riding ACE trains


Altamont Pass features dozens of massive wind turbines


Detraining passengers dash to their cars upon arrival in Tracy

A few minutes later ACE # 4 discharged more commuters at Lathrop-Manteca then passed the junctions with rail lines traveling south to Bakersfield, north to Sacramento, and westward to Richmond.  Our 5:52pm arrival at Stockton was five minutes late, leaving two and a half hours until my Thruway bus to Sacramento.  The ACE station is a pleasant brick structure with comfortable seating, a covered platform, and well maintained parking lot.  Amtrak San Joaquin trains linking Sacramento and Bakersfield also use this station which the Amtrak timetable refers to as “Downtown Station, Aurora and Weber Streets” though the index in the front of the timetable lists it as “Downtown ACE Station”.  The ACE web site indicates that this was originally a Southern Pacific station and the address is shown to be 949 E. Channel Street.  The fact that the Amtrak timetable and the ACE web site provide different street locations for the station confused me prior to my trip but my travels confirmed that they are one and the same.

The majority of San Joaquins, which connect Oakland and Bakersfield, stop at the Stockton San Joaquin Street Station located a mile or two away. My Thruway bus to Sacramento would stop at that station thus I had to decide where to spend my layover.  Though the ACE station is labeled “downtown”, it is not in the center of a typical downtown area and the neighborhood is not conducive to walking.  I was accurately told that neither station has eating establishments within a safe walking distance so I opted to spend the majority of my layover at the ACE station.  The friendly ACE agents advised me of a local pizza place that offered free delivery and my delicious pizza arrived within a reasonable time.  While waiting, I watched a northbound BNSF freight train pass and observed Amtrak San Joaquin # 704 from Sacramento to Bakersfield make its station stop.  Interestingly, southbound Amtrak trains on this line are even numbered, the opposite of most routes.


ACE train # 4 after arrival in Stockton


Train # 4 stands by the Stockton platform while a BNSF freight approaches


A northbound BNSF freight passes the ACE station in Stockton


Amtrak # 704, a southbound San Joaquin from Sacramento pushes into Stockton on the outer track


Inside the ACE Stockton station off Channel Stree

Thus far my two main concerns had been addressed: Which station truly was served by the Thruway bus and what to do about dinner.  My third concern was how to transfer from one station to the other.  Once again the ACE agents were a valuable resource as they advised me that a shuttle bus to the other railway station would soon arrive.  When the bus pulled up to its designated loading spot adjacent to the station parking lot I was the only person boarding.  The friendly driver seemed puzzled as he expected a number of passengers off ACE train # 6.  I explained that it had been annulled and he pulled up to the station building where the ACE agents verified this oddity.  This resulted in my having a private motorcoach to take me to the San Joaquin Street station.  The driver went on to tell me that his bus would then continue to San Jose as part of his regular Amtrak Thruway bus route.  As we drove up to the Amtrak San Joaquin Street Station, I realized that I had made the correct choice for my layover as the neighborhood adjacent to this station was less than ideal.  The former Santa Fe station was busy and had Amtrak ticket agents but it would not be a great place for a long wait.  The fact that one had to see the ticket agent for a free token to open the restroom doors should explain this rationale.

The 45 minute wait for my bus departure was entertaining, though, as southbound Amtrak San Joaquin # 718 and northbound # 717 stopped for passengers followed by a southbound BNSF coal train.  Three Thruway buses boarded passengers for various destinations and mine departed a few minutes late (due to late train # 717) at 8:29pm.  The trip up I-5 was smooth and we arrived at the Amtrak station in Sacramento at 9:11.  I would spend the night at the Vagabond Inn located directly across the street from the station.  Originally I planned to walk to the hotel, however, I read on a TrainWeb message board that the hotel offers free shuttle service which is advisable for those with luggage.  This proved to be good advice as access to the hotel requires one to enter from the opposite side of the property which would have necessitated a three block walk pulling heavy luggage.  The shuttle arrived quickly and within minutes I was relaxing in my clean, comfortable, and reasonably priced room.  In the morning the Vagabond Inn offers complimentary breakfast and the outdoor swimming pool looked inviting on a hot autumn day.  The California State Railroad Museum is within easy walking distance and is well worth a visit.


Stockton’s San Joaquin Street Station serves San Joaquin trains between Oakland and Bakersfield.  Note the lighted Santa Fe sign on the street side of the building.


A BNSF coal train pulls up and stops beside the Stockton platform


The cab control car on southbound San Joaquin # 718


Amtrak # 718 prepares to depart San Joaquin Street Station


Thruway busses are ready for boarding at Stockton’s San Joaquin Street Station


Northbound San Joaquin # 717 uses Horizon fleet equipment including this café car


Vagabond Inn, Sacramento Old Town is convenient to the Amtrak station


The swimming pool area at Vagabond Inn is inviting on a hot day

One can travel directly from San Jose to Sacramento aboard an Amtrak Capitol Corridor train without the Stockton shuffle, however, the scenic ACE route is worth the extra effort.  However, one must take into account the station transfer and lack of dining options in Stockton before attempting this routing.  There also is a late night San Joaquin offering Stockton to Sacramento train service without changing stations, however, this would add two more hours to the layover in Stockton.


Altamont Commuter Express

Vagabond Inn Sacramento Old Town

First Leg of this Rail Journey:  FLORIDA TO NEW MEXICO BY RAIL By Jack M. Turner



Amtrak Pacific Surfliner roundtrip Fullerton to Oceanside
and NCTD Sprinter ride to Escondido, California.
  September 17, 2015


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