San Jose’s VTA light rail trains are increasingly empty and slow
A VTA light rail train at Baypointe Station. Photo by Robert Eliason.

The VTA light rail system is much like the famed song “Rock Island Line”: if you want to ride it, you gotta ride it like you find it.

Light rail riders find the commute to be clean, comfortable, easy to use, handicap accessible and on schedule. It can also be time-consumingly slow, with a cross-town trip from the Santa Teresa station to the Mountain View station taking 90 minutes, a distance a car can travel 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 ample lot. A train with open doors waited on 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 nobody there to see if you actually paid. The crawl signs above the doors that announce stations periodically warn that everyone needs a ticket, but in almost three and a half hours of riding the system I never was asked for one—nor did I see anyone checking at any point.

The train I rode had two cars with a section of bike racks in between. Bike 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 small hook the bike hangs from,” he told San José Spotlight. “If the train hits a bump, the bike can pop off the rack right on top of you.”

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

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

With stations placed between two and three minutes apart, a total of 39 stations between Santa Teresa and Mountain View and a delay in transferring at the Baypointe station, the time adds up relentlessly. While the trains do not stop at stations where passengers are not embarking or disembarking, which happened at 13 of the 78 stops on my round trip, the impact on the schedule was negligible.

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

“I use the system, but I think it could have been planned better,” said Monica Mallon, founder of Turnout4Transit and a transportation columnist for San José Spotlight. “Currently, the trains do not have signal priority throughout the system so it can really slow down at certain points on the route. Downtown, you also have people walking across the tracks, which is a challenge.”

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

“The VTA light rail is known as being one of the least successful in the country,” he said. “It literally runs at a crawl because it runs on the sidewalk where there are people walking and that slows it down tremendously. And especially along North First Street, it does not have signal priority so it has to wait with the cars at the intersection. A lot of the routing, particularly in the north side, is rather winding. That is great for serving the tech businesses up there, but it also slows the trains down.”

VTA light rail in Mountain View. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Overall, riding from one end of the line to the other without taking a break other than to transfer, the trip lasted a total of 3 hours and 13 minutes.

While it is unlikely an everyday commuter would travel such a long route, shorter routes are also time-consuming. The trip from the Santa Teresa station to the Baypointe transfer, for example, is 26 minutes by car and more than 50 minutes by train.

VTA has been plagued by problems in recent years, including service cuts, concerns over COVID protocols, a mass shooting at the Guadalupe light rail yard which shut the service down for three months and complaints of a toxic work culture.

San Jose Vice Mayor Chappie Jones, recently elected as the new board chair of VTA, says the system needs to be evaluated to see if it is a viable form of transportation or it needs changes.

“Commuters have choices and if it is more time effective to drive, they are going to do that,” he said. “If you can create transit that has comparable times and is easy to use, you will bring in more riders. The number of stops is going to figure into it. If you can have a system like Caltrain, with express trains and fewer stops, I think that would be attractive to a lot of people.”

Contact Robert Eliason at [email protected]

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