San Jose – VTA Light Rail

VTA Light Rail

San Jose’s VTA Light Rail

San Jose: the city south of the Bay Area near Silicon Valley.

San Jose is towards the end of the Caltrain commuter rail system that runs up to San Francisco making at least two dozen stops in San Mateo County and northern Santa Clara County. Its transit system, VTA, is the Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority, which has an extensive bus system and an equally matched light rail system.

I haven’t really ridden the light rail too extensively, but I will comment on my experiences riding the one or two stops along the downtown strip and my interfaces with the light rail at different spots.

VTA has had a long history with light rail, dating back to at least the late 1980s to early 1990s, with high-floor UTDC vehicles that have since been retired.  Newer Kinkisharyo light rail cars were ordered to expand the system in the late 1990s to early 2000s.  Pictured above are the Kinkisharyo cars, in the upper 900s; the UTDCs were in the lower 900 series.  The system only ran from Santa Teresa to Alum Rock, with later extensions to Almaden and Mountain View.  The line to Winchester came about in the mid-2000s.  Within the last few years, there was peak commuter express service on the Santa Teresa line, running non-stop from Ohlone/Chynoweth to the Convention Center, then all stops to Baypointe, near the edge of Silicon Valley.

This system isn’t without its issues and controversies, from the overbuilding of the lines to the routes to nowhere with ridership far below expectations.  In the beginning stages of expansion to Mountain View and Almaden, there was little demand for service to a point where VTA had so many extra cars laying around to eventually “loan” to other cities with capacity issues, such as Salt Lake City with their TRAX system.  The UTDCs were problematic, partially because UTDC has a limited success run in North America, with only rapid transit cars for Toronto, Vancouver, and Detroit under its belt prior to the VTA order.

My experiences with the VTA system are more bus-based than rail-based, but I did take a ride on the VTA light rail within the downtown portion of the line, before the Santa Teresa and Winchester lines branch off past the Convention Center.  I did like the fact that in the downtown portion of the system, the VTA uses one-way street pairs for a reduced light rail footprint.  In other words, instead of closing one main street to cars and putting the light rail and buses on one street like the Long Beach Transit Mall, the VTA light rail utilizes one side of the street as a right-of-way combined with an extended sidewalk with buses and other vehicles on the other side.  Buses use the rightmost lane in order to interface with the light rail, making the whole downtown strip intermodal of sorts.  Still a transit mall, but more so like Portland, Oregon’s setup.

The only other part of the station that I have seen up close is the Great America Station, at the Great America mall.  It’s an elevated station, with two tracks and an island platform, and a transit center for the buses just outside the main parking lot of the mall.  I have seen pictures and some videos online of many other stations in the system, but since I haven’t ridden the system too much myself, I don’t feel I can comment more than I have.  I will say, though, that though the VTA had an ambitious light rail plan, and much of it was built already, the ridership doesn’t seem to materialize as much as the system was designed for, with the possible exception of the south end towards Santa Teresa.  The dip in ridership from many years ago may be attributed to the layoffs in and around the Silicon Valley area which led to decline in ridership.  It seems to be coming back, slowly but surely, as indicated by the express service during the peak hours, but there can be more done to increase ridership and capacity, when funding becomes available.

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