VTA installs new safety railings in downtown San Jose
VTA's new railings in downtown San Jose are designed to help keep trains and people from getting in each other's way. Photo courtesy of VTA.

The next time you’re strolling through downtown San Jose while staring at your phone, look up. You might bump into a VTA railing that’s meant to save you from an oncoming train.

VTA recently installed a series of railings on Second Street as part of a pilot program to improve safety and speed for VTA customers. The railings were initially installed Nov. 2 and additional railings and safety signage will be up by Nov. 27. While the valley’s public transit agency has no current plans to install more railings at different stations, a fencing project along North First Street is a possibility if funding becomes available.

In the past year, VTA officials say two people were killed after being struck by a train and there have been far too many close calls — incidents where passengers walk or drive onto the tracks without realizing it. Even worse, but perhaps not surprisingly, many are on their phones or have earbuds in.

The new stainless steel railing lines the space between the sidewalk and the light rail tracks along Second Street from San Carlos to San Fernando.

“It really just is the way of the world — now that we have so much technology,” VTA spokesperson Brandi Childress said. “These dangerous activities prevent trains from operating at the already slow 10 miles per hour and results in operators having to increasingly stop between stations to avoid people on the tracks.”

On North First Street, trains can go up to 55 miles per hour, Childress said, yet jaywalking frequently occurs.

The installation of rails, which cost $1.1 million from VTA’s operating fund, is being closely monitored. A manager is doing on-site observations, riding in the light rail cab to collect track intrusion data, Childress said, and efforts have been made to hear from light rail operators and customers. There’s also been “healthy debate” among customers on VTA’s social media pages, she added.

Monica Mallon, 22, a frequent public transit rider and member of Silicon Valley Transit Users, a public transit advocacy organization, said she thinks the project is a wise investment. Mallon said she rides the light rail almost every day of the week.

“I’m really glad that VTA is actually prioritizing safety and speed,” Mallon said. “I support this, but I think in order to have much better ridership, VTA needs to do a lot more.”

Transit needs to be prioritized in any way possible, especially in light of the climate crisis, Mallon said. San Jose’s impending development boom means more residents and more cars on roads that are already “unsafe,” she added.

“Our roads are more congested than ever and we need to improve transit to the point where people want to take it,” Mallon said. “We have these transit-oriented developments, but people aren’t taking transit from them, which completely defeats the purpose.”

Councilmember Raul Peralez, who represents downtown San Jose where the first set of rails were installed, helped with putting together the pilot’s logistics, outreach plan and timing. The VTA also worked with businesses along South Second Street on developing and implementing the project.

“These kind of improvements are really key to getting people out of their cars,” Peralez said. “All the thousands of people we’ll be adding to our city, the jobs and the residents. We need to give them fast, efficient, reliable modes of transportation.”

One of the top complaints transit officials receive is light rail trains moving too slowly, Childress said. That’s primarily because the design of the transit station allows pedestrians to walk onto the tracks at any given time, but if the railings successfully keep a safe barrier between people and moving trains, the speed of trains could be increased. VTA plans to tackle that issue in an upcoming revamp of the bus and light rail service, which will be introduced on Dec. 28.

“We’re looking at less waiting for customers, we’re going to be opening service to our new transit centers in Milpitas and Berryessa,” Childress said. “It’s a faster, more frequent network and improved routing. We’re excited about it.”

If the railings enhance safety over the next six months, VTA officials plan to install railings further down the line in the downtown area. Some could even feature table tops and bike racks, officials said.

Contact Loan-Anh Pham at the.loananh.lede@gmail.com or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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