As VTA cautiously moves forward with limited light rail service, some workers are still grappling with trauma from the May mass shooting as they return to the rail yard.
Last week, VTA trains embarking on test runs left the Guadalupe rail yard for the first time in almost three months. On Sunday, the transit agency resumed limited service at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara to ferry passengers for an NFL preseason game. VTA announced on Monday that service is resuming on several lines.
“Light rail is back on track,” VTA said in a statement. “Okay… it’s only part of the system, but we are working hard to get the whole system back on track. And through September 12, it’s free!”
Restoring services means bringing back light rail operators. VTA previously told San José Spotlight that drivers are being re-trained and re-certified. General Manager Carolyn Gonot praised returning workers last week, calling them heroes and survivors.
Returning to the rail yard
A critical part of VTA’s plan is giving employees tours of temporary work sites and the light rail yard, the site of the mass shooting in May that forced the agency to suspend service for months. On Tuesday, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors considered recommendations for various immediate and long-term trauma services for VTA employees and their families.
VTA turned down a request from San José Spotlight to join a tour of the rail yard, but workers who attended recent tours described their experiences.
Workers who spoke with San José Spotlight said VTA did not let them into Building B, where six of nine employees were killed on May 26 by a disgruntled VTA worker. One worker said VTA didn’t give a reason why they weren’t allowed in there. Instead, employees went into Building A, which houses the control center.
The worker said it was unsettling to enter the building, where three of their colleagues were killed. Other than a new paint job, the interior of the building looked the same as the last time the worker saw it on the day of the shooting.
“It felt really hard for me,” said one VTA employee, who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation. “We all walked up the stairs, and some people broke down, getting emotional and crying… we feel like it just happened yesterday.”
On Friday, the transit agency filed a petition for a restraining order against a trainee who allegedly stated on two occasions that if he failed his operator test he “would shoot the place up.” VTA terminated the trainee after an employee reported his comments on Aug. 16. According to court records, the same trainee made similar comments to another worker two weeks prior. That worker didn’t report the comments because he thought they were a bad joke.
The worker who spoke with San José Spotlight said re-certified employees also briefly operated trains and that the experience was initially challenging, but became easier after a while. The worker has a hard time imagining coming back to the rail yard, noting that it was difficult to chat and laugh with their colleagues. They said it felt tense and like everyone was paranoid of each other.
“It’s like you don’t trust anybody around you,” the worker said. “It might happen again—how are we supposed to feel safe with that?”
A different worker said they feel okay being back at the rail yard, but they aren’t sure what might trigger them in the future.
“I knew the (shooting) had occurred because of our radio system… I heard the gunshots,” the worker said. “So for some of us the trigger might not be the location of where it occurred, but it might be the location of where we were when we heard the call.”
‘The culture needs to change’
A VTA spokesperson told San José Spotlight they can’t share any feedback from workers about tours of work areas.
“In terms of safety, VTA has increased security at all of our divisions including increased sheriff and security patrols, as well as other security measures which we’re not releasing to the public,” the spokesperson said.
A VTA memo from July obtained by San José Spotlight instructs employees on what to do during an active shooter situation. The document states that shootings are often over within 10 to 15 minutes, and that “the concepts of run, hide, fight (defend) should be considered.”
The workers who spoke with San José Spotlight say they see evidence of VTA bolstering security. But they’re concerned it won’t necessarily protect them from an internal threat.
“The shooter was a full-fledged employee. He could have access to anything and everything,” one worker said. “My thing, my personal view, the root of this is the (work) culture. That’s what would have prevented this… the culture needs to change.”
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article misidentified the building where six VTA workers were killed.