San Jose’s VTA light rail trains are increasingly empty and slow

December 26, 2021

The VTA light rail system is a lot like the famous song “Rock Island Line”: if you want to ride it, you have to ride it the way you find it.

Light rail riders find the ride to be clean, comfortable, easy to use, handicapped accessible and on schedule. It can also take a long time, with a trip between Santa Teresa Station and Mountain View Station taking 90 minutes, a distance a car can cover in 25 minutes.

I arrived at the Santa Teresa station at 10:10 a.m. and was surprised to find less than a dozen cars parked in the vast parking lot. An open-door train was waiting at the platform, so I bought a $5 excursion pass—good for eight hours—and boarded.

The ease of getting on the train was also a surprise. No turnstiles and no one to see if you actually paid. The signboards above the gates announcing the stations periodically warn that everyone needs a ticket, but in almost three and a half hours of driving through the system, I have never been asked for one – and I didn’t see anyone checking at any time.

The train I took had two cars with a section of bike racks in between. Cycling commuter Shannon Way uses the train two or three times a week and said while overall he finds the system reliable, he is wary of using the racks.

“The problem is the little hook the bike hangs from,” he told San Jose Spotlight. “If the train hits a bump, the bike may fall off the rack directly above you.”

An empty VTA light rail train. Photo by Robert Eliason.

While the seats and overhead straps suggest a capacity of 86 people per train, I saw no more than 18 passengers at any one time – and at several stops I was the only one boarding.

With stations spaced two to three minutes apart, a total of 39 stations between Santa Teresa and Mountain View, and a transfer delay at Baypointe station, the time adds up relentlessly. Although the trains do not stop at stations where passengers do not board or disembark, which happened at 13 of the 78 stops on my round trip, the impact on the schedule was negligible.

There are also delays when the tracks cross city streets, causing the train to stop at a traffic light with other traffic.

“I use the system, but I think it could have been planned better,” said Monica Mallon, founder of Turnout4Transit and a means of transport journalist for San Jose Spotlight. “Currently the trains don’t have signal priority in the whole system, so it can really slow down at certain points in the route. In the city center there are also people crossing the tracks, which is a challenge.”

Eugene Bradley, founder of Silicon Valley Transit Users, agrees.

“The VTA light rail is known to be one of the worst performers in the country,” he said. “He’s literally running at a run because he’s riding on the sidewalk where there are people walking and that slows him down tremendously. And especially along North First Street he doesn’t have signal priority so he has to wait with the cars at the intersection. A lot of the route, especially on the north side, is rather winding. This is great for servicing the tech companies up there, but it also slows down the trains.

VTA tram in Mountain View. Photo by Robert Eliason.

In total, traveling from one end of the line to the other without pausing other than the connection, the journey took a total of 3 hours and 13 minutes.

Although an everyday commuter is unlikely to make such a long journey, shorter journeys also take time. The journey from the Santa Teresa station to the Baypointe transfer, for example, is 26 minutes by car and over 50 minutes by train.

VTA has been plagued with problems in recent years, including service cutsconcerns about COVID protocolsa mass shooting at the Guadalupe Light Rail Yard which interrupted service for three months and complaints from a toxic work culture.

San Jose Vice Mayor Chappie Jones, recently elected new chairman of the VTA board, said the system needed to be evaluated to determine if it was a viable means of transportation or if it needed changes.

“Commuters have a choice and if it’s more efficient to drive, they will,” he said. “If you can create public transport that has comparable timetables and is easy to use, you will attract more passengers. The number of stops will be there. If you can have a system like Caltrain, with express trains and less stops, I think that would be of interest to a lot of people.”

Contact Robert Eliason at [email protected]

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Jose P. Rogers