Ackemann: Catching the last train home
A VTA light rail train is pictured in this file photo.

This will be my final column for San José Spotlight. I am grateful to have been given a platform here. Excuse my indulgence in this final column, I’d like to tell a more personal story.

During the early days of the pandemic the transit situation in the Bay Area felt dire. Trains, buses and even highways emptied of commuters. It was a financial impact no one planned for in January 2020—and I knew for organization’s like Caltrain, my former employer, the loss of fare revenue could be devastating.

I worried for my friends still working in the valley. San José Spotlight gave me the opportunity to offer my perspective on the Bay Area’s public transportation organizations and the decisions they would make in navigating the pandemic and planning for the future.

I’m a child of San Jose. I grew up on the east side, just off Alum Rock. I rode light rail to Great America with friends in junior high. In high school I rode VTA’s 22 to Caltrain, which took me to Saint Francis in Mountain View. I graduated from San Jose State University. The Bay Area was my stomping ground.

The pandemic seemed to arrive on a wave of transit acrimony. Predictions about the end of public transportation began early on. Caltrain’s survival seemed suddenly a very real question. Tensions between VTA’s unions and management—long simmering—were heightened by the fear and uncertainty we all felt about the novel coronavirus that shut the country down.

We spent a summer locked indoors. Unable to see friends and family due to fears of COVID-19; unable to go outside due to noxious wildfire smoke that turned our skies orange.

These little traumas we all experienced together-but-alone, they add up.

I say all this because it’s important to reflect on the context in which the tragic events of May 26 occurred.

The people left to navigate VTA’s path in the uncertain days after a mass shooting event that took nine lives at the Guadalupe light rail facility also lived through the strain of the pandemic. Some who live in my Santa Cruz Mountain community evacuated during the wildfires.

These traumas are compounding. They take a toll. There have been dozens of articles about the long term mental health impacts of the pandemic, the isolation, the fear that we are all living through.

The restoration of partial light rail service this past weekend was an accomplishment worthy of praise. Workers had to be re-certified for duty after a long period away. Light rail systems had to be inspected. All while trying to offer employees an opportunity to grieve and heal.

It hasn’t been a perfect process. But is there a perfect process?

Like all public transportation agencies, VTA has conducted mass shooting drills. I’ve participated in some of them. But those drills plan for how to preserve life during the event. The aftermath of a tragedy like that is something much more difficult to plan.

The light rail shutdown must have been incredibly difficult for riders who depend on it. I can’t imagine the additional hours spent commuting over the summer for those riders with no alternatives. I don’t want to discount that experience because those three months must have been challenging.

VTA is facing a new challenge now. To borrow a phrase, they are figuring out how to “build back better.” CEO Carolyn Gonot, new to the role but not to the organization, is taking over at a time when the agency she worked at for 20 years may not feel all that familiar.

She will need to lead with her heart. But I think she’s someone who can.

ATU President John Courtney made an emotional plea for mental health support. I hope VTA is listening because “building back” means building systems that provide long term support for their employees too.

Recently I was appointed to serve out the term of office for a water district director who resigned unexpectedly in my San Lorenzo Valley community. I took on a new role with a community service nonprofit that is helping CZU fire victims in our valley rebuild their lives and working to end family, child and senior hunger in Santa Cruz County.

I’m resigning this column to focus my time on addressing the trauma so many in my own community are still experiencing following the fires that cost so many of my neighbors their homes.

But my heart will always know the way to San Jose.

San José Spotlight columnist Jayme Ackemann is the former director of marketing and communications for Caltrain, SamTrans and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority. She spent most of her 20-year career working on the Bay Area’s transportation challenges, including roles at the San Mateo County Transit District, VTA, Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District and San Jose Water.

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