VTA committee puts Vasona extension on ice, discusses light rail makeover

At the latest VTA Capital Program Committee meeting, transit leaders discussed the future of the county’s light rail system from system enhancements to possible new technology investments.

The meeting started with an item that could have an impact on Campbell and Los Gatos — a presentation about the proposed Vasona expansion of the light rail system. VTA Senior Transportation Planner Jason Kim presented a study that fleshes out the complex extension of the trolleys from the existing end of the line at Winchester all the way to Vasona Junction, by Highway 85 and Netflix. The three hurdles that Kim outlined have to do with not just the extending of the rails the extra 2.1 miles down the road, but also eliminating single-tracked sections, and longer platforms to accommodate the 3-trolley trains that run on other parts of the system.

The study dug deep to find alternatives that made sense for the cadence of service and the estimated ridership, even sharing tracks with the freight trains that run alongside the VTA trolleys.

“We did some analysis on what it would mean if we wanted to run our trains on the (Union Pacific corridor),” Kim said. “After some initial analysis, that was dropped from this study because of the high capital costs and very advanced signaling systems that we needed… as well as the difficulty (working) with Union Pacific on these types of operations.”

But the $48 million estimated cost of extending the platforms on stations from Diridon to Winchester, the $39 million price tag on low-hanging double-track expansion and the additional $94 million to make the entire line double-tracked just didn’t seem to add up. And without these changes, the already-expensive $191 million Vasona project hardly seems worth it.

The committee agreed that pumping the brakes on the Vasona extension is the best course of action for now. Even Kim underscored that there would be “no major bump in ridership,” nor will the improvements “unlock higher frequencies,” along the Winchester route as currently projected.

The committee turned their attention to another pressing rail matter — VTA’s aging light rail vehicles.

Operations Manager Daniel Hecht gave a brief history of the light rail’s trains, including details about the custom low-floor Kinkisharyo trains VTA has in service now, which have a federally-mandated lifespan of 30 years. The trains started rolling out in 2001, making them roughly 18 years into their expected service lifetime.

The vehicles are getting ready for their second refurbishment, a comprehensive maintenance program to extend the life of the trains as they each reach a million miles traveled. Expected to cost $75 million, the trains will get updated propulsion systems and other mechanical updates, but the planning needs to start now to ensure the work gets started on time.

“In 2021, we’re going to be starting with the scope of work and procedure development for the million-mile overhaul,” Hecht explained. “And in 2022, we really have to start purchasing parts… there’s long lead times for some of these major components, so we need to start purchasing those in 2022 so they’re here in time for the first batch of overhauls in 2024 or 2025.

Committee members also looked to future technologies to replace VTA’s aging trains with an upcoming transit study. The technologies presented include modern light rail trains with covered wheels (similar to Seattle’s German-built trains which are currently being manufactured), autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles, hybrid-electric trains that don’t require overhead lines on every route, and even trackless rapid transit systems that run on tires instead of rails. The call for a technology study proposal will go out to interested firms next month, and VTA officials estimate the study will take no longer than six months.

Committee Chair, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, was excited by the idea of partnering with local companies to let VTA “dip (its) toe in the water” of new transit technologies in the interim.

“There’s going to be a lot of players out there that would love to demonstrate that technology and in Silicon Valley of all places,” the mayor said. “And that’s not a way to replace 100 vehicles. But it might be the way (to replace) three to six to nine vehicles, that we could then demonstrate and test while we’re doing some repairs on the existing fleet.”

Contact Brendan Nystedt at [email protected] or follow @bnystedt on Twitter.

 

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