(San Francisco – KALW) California's high-speed rail project may be struggling to find funding, but it's not because nobody wants to ride trains.
The state's transportation department, known as Caltrans, reports that ridership on Amtrak's California lines is up significantly. The Capitol Corridor route saw an increase of almost 10% over the past year, while ridership on the San Joaquin route went up nearly 13%.
Revenue on the San Joaquin route increased by 19%.
The numbers – which, according to Caltrans, are at an all-time high – are notable because the routes are similar to those eventually envisioned for the state's high-speed rail system, linking the Bay Area, Sacramento, and Bakersfield.
Caltrans rail marketing chief Debbie Mullins said a large part of the increased ridership could be attributed to high gas prices. But, she said, advertising matters. Beginning in March, Amtrak undertook a $1.3 million PR blitz, stringing billboards around major freeway corridors in Sacramento, Los Angeles, and the Central Valley. The billboards were black and white, with colorful icons showing all the benefits of riding a train: food, power outlets, etc. They also featured 26 different taglines emphasizing the benefits of train travel over both cars and planes ("Experience space travel," "There's no backseat driver when there's no backseat"). Mullins said Amtrak is planning a more comprehensive study to quantify the effects of billboard and online campaigns.
What does this say about the state's appetite for high-speed rail? Mullins declined to speculate, but she did note that Amtrak ridership has risen steadily despite fluctuating gas prices. "People recognize the amenities of the train: food, electricity, just the freedom to walk around," she said. "Once they're introduced to that, they look at the train with a whole new set of eyes."