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San Jose LRT LRT train at Campbell
(Photo: Peter Ehrlich)


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San Jose:
With Opening of Full Vasona Extension, Light Rail Hits Highest Ridership in 3 1/2 Years

Light Rail Now Project Team – February 2006

San Jose's light rail transit (LRT) system continued its expansion in both system size and ridership with the completion and opening on 1 October 2005 of the new Vasona extension connecting central San Jose with the new Winchester Station in the exurb of Campbell.

As we reported in our article San Jose's "Comeback Kid" Light Rail System Opens First Link of Vasona Extension, the full extension comprises a 5.3-mile route (8.5 km) with 8 stations (see map, below). Total project cost came to US$316.8 million – equalling a unit cost of about $60 million/mile ($37 million/km), pushed up by expensive tunnel and viaduct construction.

Opening of the full extension – well ahead of the original January 2006 target date – had been delayed while the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) complied with Federal Railroad Administration demands for improvements in signalling where the LRT line crosses Union Pacific Railroad tracks, near Race Street. Meanwhile, as our article reported, regular service between the San Fernando and Diridon stations (roughly a mile apart) opened for to the public beginning 1 August 2005.

inaugural LRT train deboards apssengers after arrival at Winchester station in Campbell on opening day of extension, 1 October 2005.
[Photo: Peter Ehrlich]

Right-of-way shared with railroad

Of particular interest is the extension's sharing of a corridor alignment with the Union Pacific Railroad – significant because of the current controversy within the transit and railroad industries over such joint use by transit and heavy railroad services. Although VTA's LRT operates on a separate track, as Bay Area transit activist Peter Ehrlich has noted, "the Vasona Corridor was the first in the VTA system where light rail and an active railroad share the right of way."

Peter also points out that the opening of the LRT extension to Campbell "was the first time electric passenger transport had been brought to Campbell since the April 1, 1932 closure of Peninsular Railway interurban service." According to the San Jose Mercury News (2 October 2005), completion of the Vasona extension brings the total length of the LRT system to about 42 miles (68 km), reaching from Mountain View to East San Jose and to Campbell. Currently, trains are scheduled every 15 minutes during peak hours and roughly every 30 minutes during other times and on weekends.
[Map: LRN, adapted from VTA]

"Surprising story" – LRT attracts public

Early indications suggest the new line is a major hit with the public, and a stimulant to ridership on the system. "Much-maligned trolley service gaining popularity" headlined a San Jose Mercury News on 4 October (2005), relating growing ridership and rising demand for park & ride spaces at stations.

"Maybe light rail won't be the failure critics claim" speculated reporter Gary Richards. On a personal excusion to test how the new line was doing, Richards reported a "surprising story" at the Winchester station in Campbell: Of 55 available spaces, only four remained free. "By the time I get out of my car a minute later, two of those spaces are gone" he wrote.

Noting throngs of riders, Richards is pleasantly surprised by both the service and the ridership:

The Valley Transportation Authority train is clean and bright, the faces onboard smiling and eager. Some are first-time riders; others have moved over from buses. There are students headed north to San Jose State University, an accountant bound for the new San Jose City Hall, a woman going to the Diridon station to transfer to Caltrain to work in San Francisco, and the CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, bike in tow.

In 16 minutes we are at the Caltrain station near the Sharks arena. Another 10 minutes and it's up First Street – and I'm in disbelief. People are standing on the train, holding onto overhead straps.


"For many," Richards went on to note, "light rail is slower than the car. For others, however, it can be a big time-saver. They are bus riders who have endured trips of an hour or longer to get around the valley. Now, if their destination is on a trolley route, a trip can be made in a fraction of the time."

"It would take me an hour and a half to ride the bus to school" said one passenger, a student "cramming for a microeconomics test" as he rode the LRT train from the Hamilton Avenue stop in Campbell to San Jose State University. "Now, I'm figuring 25 minutes" he told the reporter.

"Early signs are that things may be turning up for a system harshly criticized for its huge expense and lackluster ridership" Richards concluded, citing figures that "More than 23,000 trips were made last month [September 2005] on an average weekday, up 7.5 percent from a year ago."

LRT: "One of valley's best kept secrets"

More evidence of the line's success is suggested in a subsequent Mercury News column (24 December) in which reporter Richards publishes and then responds to readers' comments. "One of the valley's best kept secrets is the VTA's light rail" wrote one correspondent, describing how he and his wife used the new LRT extension to access a concert in the central city.

"We found the cars clean, warm and well-lighted. When we got off we were walking past lines of slow moving cars waiting to get into jammed parking lots and it made us smirk" continued the writer, describing how he and his wife avoided the enormous traffic jamming both into and, later, out opf the parking facilities at San Jose's HP Pavilion.

In response, Gary Richards noted that LRT ridership had risen 22 percent in November from the same period a year previously. "Daily weekday ridership was at 26,034, the highest level in 3 1/2 years" he reported.

Light Rail Now! website
Updated 2006/02/28

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