Perhaps the only “Freedom Train” operating in the country, a specially designated Caltrain traveling from San Jose to San Francisco on Martin Luther King Jr. Day was one low-turnout trip away from calling next year’s event the “Farewell to the Freedom Train.”
But thanks to passengers who got on board in response to dwindling ticket sales, the train will continue to survive for the foreseeable future.
Ticket sales for the 54-mile journey — approximately the same distance of the famous Selma to Montgomery March in 1965 — had been decreasing for the past five years, but this year was “so alarmingly bad,” said Kathleen Flynn, president of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Association of Santa Clara Valley.
After only 300 of the 1,600 seats on the 10-car train had been sold as of Thursday, the association announced the 31st annual Freedom Train in 2015 would be the last – unless more people rode this holiday. By Sunday night, before the 10 a.m. ride out of the Diridon Station, 800 people had purchased tickets for the $15 round trip. On Monday morning, 1,031 boarded and arrived at the station at Fourth and King streets in San Francisco.
“It was up to the community to support the train because it belongs to them,” Flynn said. “We wanted to give them the opportunity to save the train and they sure did.”
While the ceremonial train’s popularity has lost momentum since King’s widow Coretta Scott King started it three decades ago, it continues to carry veteran riders who appreciate the generations it has picked up through the years.
Among the last passengers to get off in San Francisco was Ocie Tinsley, who rode on the very first Freedom Train and said some years have been more inspired than others. This one, however, was just as exciting as the inaugural trip, he said.
“There was singing, there was a person giving the ’I Have a Dream’ speech and singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ and some of the march songs,” said Tinsley, treasurer of the African American Heritage House in San Jose. “There were young people who had learned about Martin Luther King Jr. talking, so it’s good to see it carry on.”
The train costs the association $5,000 to charter and $1,000 to advertise annually, with any remaining funds directed toward scholarships. The association has been able to cover the costs through donations from law enforcement unions and the San Jose mayor and council members, Flynn said.
“We’ve been trying to reach the city of San Francisco for months,” she said.
Traditionally, mostly black and white passengers have ridden the train, but this year had a large Latino showing. Still, Flynn said she “would like to see the train be much more diverse” in future trips.