Each morning, they travel westward from Nevada City or eastward from Martinez and beyond; their reasons for coming to UC Davis vary widely. They are specialists in office management, neurology, geology, entomology and English, working in offices spread throughout campus. Nevertheless, many of them know each other very well.
And as well they should. These graduate students, researchers, professors and staff members spend up to four hours a day together, bouncing research theories off each other, taking in the view or simply sharing a few laughs as they pass the time aboard their rather uncommon mode of commuter transportation – the train.
About 20 campus members participate in the Trainpool program, which provides special incentives for riders along Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor route, running between Colfax and San Jose.
The program officially began in January with TAPS’ receipt of a $9,000 grant from the Yolo-Solano Air Quality Management District. "The goal is to reduce air pollution and traffic congestion in the region and to help reduce the parking demands on campus," said TAPS Alternative Transportation Coordinator Ann Davies-Nesbitt.
Under the new grant, up to 40 campus riders can get a subsidy of $18 each per month by purchasing discounted commuter Transit-Cheks. The $100 TransitCheks (sold for $82) then can be put toward the purchase of Amtrak monthly passes, costing, for instance, $136 to commute from Auburn, $161 to commute from Martinez, $219 to commute from Emeryville, and $253 to ride to and from Fremont.
"A lot of people who have signed up (for the Trainpool program) are people who were already taking the train," Davies-Nesbitt said. But she hopes the new program also will encourage new train-poolers.
Program participants also can get emergency rides home and two days per month of courtesy parking permits for days when riding the train is not possible, Davies-Nesbitt said. And many participants are also eligible for a pretax payroll deduction of the $82 they spend on TransitCheks.
Participants say saving money certainly has weighed into their decisions to trainpool.
Karen Sigvardt, a neurology professor with the Center for Neuroscience, started riding last May from Richmond to Davis. "The train costs about the same as the daily cost for gas and tolls," she said. "But it saves a lot when you consider the insurance and wear and tear on your car from driving 120 miles a day five days a week."
Melba Ramirez agreed. "It definitely is a money-saver," said the project manager for Instructional and Educational Technology’s communications resources. Ramirez picks up trains in Oakland or Fremont for a two-hour ride into Davis.
For Emeryville resident Sathees Chandra, a postdoctoral researcher in entomology, trainpooling affords her savings of about $150 a month. For Charles Nunn, a postdoc in evolution and ecology, taking the train from Berkeley has meant his family could dispense with one car entirely.
Still, these riders and others said cost-saving was just one of many benefits of commuting by train – and often it wasn’t what they considered the primary attraction.
"What’s nice is that it’s relaxing and I don’t have to deal with traffic and rude drivers," said Bob Knop of Mediaworks, who started commuting the about three hours roundtrip from Auburn to Davis last spring. Knop takes his bike on the train, which leaves Auburn at 6:30 a.m. and arrives in Davis at 7:55 a.m. He then bikes to campus from the train station, located at Second and G streets. "Even though it takes about 20 minutes longer on the commute, it is well worth it," he said.
A quiet place to conduct research
Plush seats and an on-board café that serves drinks, sandwiches and snacks add an extra level of comfort to the ride. And tabletops and electrical outlets for computers help riders squeeze a little extra work into their day.
Chandra spends about three hours roundtrip on the train five to six days a week. "I get my research analysis done – it’s very calm and quiet early in the morning; so it’s easy to think and come up with good solutions."
"It provides me with my most productive work time during the day," said Dawn Sumner, a geology professor who started riding the train 15 months ago after moving to Martinez– an hour down the tracks from Davis.
Sigvardt sometimes travels with a post-doc in her lab. "Depending on our moods, we either talk about the projects we are working on or we just chat. It adds an hour to my commute, but I can get work done and I feel better."
Commuters form communities
But it’s not all work. There is plenty of play, said Knop, who has developed friendships with several fellow commuters from UC Davis and Sacramento. "We have parties for Christmas and New Years and other occasions that everyone is invited to. There are games and food, which makes it very entertaining and fun," he said.
Chandra said she often sits with three or four graduate students. "So far, I like the exchange of views we have on different topics. And our friendship on the train has grown into inviting each other to parties and dinners in the Bay Area," she said, adding, "People who travel regularly in the train seem to be very lively characters."
"We are like a little community," said Catherine Slawson of the group she rides back and forth with between Davis and Martinez. The adjunct lecturer in English composition and English as a second language noted, as did several other train-poolers, that she also enjoys knowing that she’s helping the environment.
Like any form of transit, there can be complications.
Nunn rides four to five days a week from Berkeley and sometimes runs into complications getting home for dinner on time. "There always seems to be a late-afternoon seminar resulting in my missing the 4:34 train; then I have to take the 6:04," he said.
Delays and cancellations also can occur. Sumner’s husband had to come get her in Davis once, and she’s had to cancel appointments when morning trains have been substantially delayed. But generally, she said, she can schedule around these problems.
"On average, there’s maybe one major delay a month," Ramirez said. "I’m lucky to have a flexible boss who understands that I may be late to work once in a while due to the train."
Ramirez said the Trainpool program has definitely given her more incentive to ride Amtrak. And Davies-Nesbitt said TAPS plans to apply for additional funding to continue the program next year.
Meanwhile, Sigvardt, Sumner and other train commuters said they expect to keep riding the train. "It’s very pleasant and restful," said Sigvardt. "The ride along the bay and through the Suisun Marsh and through the farm country is beautiful, particularly at sunrise and sunset."
Sumner agreed, noting, "The view out the window is beautiful, the ride is peaceful, and trains are just fun."
Amy Agronis, Dateline, (530) 752-1932, email@example.com