Pacific Surfliner commuter train in Goleta
Dozens of commuters board the Pacific Surfliner commuter train in Goleta. The service kicked off with about 140 morning commuters on average, but that number dropped to about 80 in February. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Alternative transportation activists are optimistic about the future of the $2.5 million Pacific Surfliner commuter train service between Ventura County and Goleta despite a drop in ridership since the program began in March 2018.

The service kicked off with about 140 morning commuters on average, but the number dropped to about 80 in February. 

The rain disrupted the service a few days, which may have contributed to the drop.

“We have had a lot of track issues that have impacted the train,” said Second District Supervisor Gregg Hart, a longtime alternative-transportation activist. “The rain has caused trees to fall and block the tracks. “

Hart said any disruption in train service times can impact service, and that there’s been a natural attrition of riders.

On March 31, 2018, after years of talks and negotiations, AmtrakUnion Pacific, and Santa Barbara and Ventura counties finally worked out a deal to re-time the Pacific Surfliner so that it arrived and departed during morning and afternoon commuter times. Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner morning train, No. 759, will travel from Ventura County in the morning; the afternoon return train is No. 792.

Activists have long pushed for a commuter train, in addition to widening Highway 101, as a way to lessen the daily congestion from Ventura, Oxnard and Camarillo into Santa Barbara and Goleta five days a week. Nearly 20,000 people commute into Santa Barbara daily, and the train was designed to help get people out of their cars and still to work at the right time.

First District Supervisor Das Williams said the train service has been a success despite its challenges.

“Since it only takes a reduction of a small amount of freeway traffic to reduce congestion, I think the first year has been encouraging,” Williams said. “The morning numbers are not good enough but show it can work.”

Williams said there’s still work to be done with getting people to their jobs after they arrive at either the Santa Barbara or Goleta Amtrak stations. 

“It is imperative that our local cities and county come together on a last-mile strategy,” Williams said. “Ridership to UCSB is much less than there is a potential for, and I think large employers, like the county, could think of more incentives to use the train or bus to work. Our communities are still drowning in traffic, and we need to figure out how to make it work.”

Train rider Jeff Spach commutes on the train from Carpinteria four or five days a week. He said the service changed his life.

Spach works for the Transportation Security Administration at the Santa Barbara Airport. He gets on the bus in Carpinteria about 6:30 a.m., and after two stops he’s at work a few minutes later. 

“The service works out great,” Spach said. “The freeway in the morning is just a bottleneck, and I save over $100 a month in gas.”

Hart on Wednesday was in Sacramento meeting with Gov. Gavin Newsom, part of a Santa Barbara County Association of Governments transportation funding lobbying contingent. He said Newsom wanted to learn more about the commuter rail service — and was impressed.

“The people at the highest levels of government are interested in this service,” Hart said. 

Hart said SBCAG plans to continue its efforts to boost ridership.

“We’re trying to replace those folks who are gone,” Hart said. “You’ve got to be patient. It’s clearly a service people like. It is literally life-changing.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.