Article from Moving People, Nov., 1996. Index.

Putting San Jose's Vasona Line on a

Fast Track

by Alan C. Miller

On March 31, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) held a community workshop on the Vasona light rail extension. Phase I of this planned line will link downtown San Jose and Campbell (5.5 miles). Eventually, the line will be extended to Vasona Junction (near Los Gatos, 1.6 miles) in Phase II. Further extensions along the 1-280 corridor to Los Altos and Palo Alto along the Permanente Branch right-of-way, or through to Santa Cruz via the South Pacific Coast right-of-way are possible in a far-distant, transit-friendlier future.

The ex-Southern Pacific Permanente Branch right-of-way will be used from Vasona Jct. to a station at West San Carlos St. From there, the prior route of choice, the San Carlos Alternative, had the Vasona Line proceed directly down West San Carlos St. to tie in with the existing light rail line near the Tech-Center station. A portion of the wye for this junction was built with the original line.

The laudable desire to route the Vasona Line into Diridon Station (serving Amtrak and CalTrain) and provide access to Shark Stadium has resulted in revised plans to run northward to these hubs before turning east toward Downtown.

A review process by the VTA taking into account cost, traffic impact, and concerns of residential and business districts has narrowed the proposed routings to two. These were presented at the March 31 meeting as the 'Delmas Alternative' and the 'San Fernando Alternative,' both of which share a common right-of-way from San Carlos St. to the corner of Delmas and San Fernando. Unfortunately, despite all the meetings and hard work, the public may end up with a flawed choice: a pair of slow, twisting lines which try to satisfy everyone and end up pleasing few. Worst of all, neither proposed rail line competes effectively with Highway 17, which although clogged with traffic, directly connects the suburbs with the prime employment areas of Silicon Valley.

Perhaps it is time to consider an alternative which has fewer impacts on the community, provides better access to the stations the line is to serve, will allow the service to start sooner, and will allow maximum flexibility of service. After describing the other routes, this article will examinethe advantages of running the Vasona line along the SP Milpitas Line. We call this alternative Fast Track, for reasons that will become obvious.

San Carlos Alternative

The originally proposed route down San Carlos Street to tie in with the existing line is the most cost-effective and direct route. San Carlos Street from the Vasona Branch to Tech-Center Station is significantly wide enough to accommodate light rail. There are only a few residences tucked in among some rather grungy businesses, most notably a few small used-car dealerships. The area appears ripe for redevelopment which light rail could help spur. Although this alternative is the most direct, it would leave both CalTrain and Sharks Stadium unserved.

Current VTA Proposals:Common Route San Carlos to San Fernando

Both proposed lines use the same initial routing from West San Carlos Street Station to the corner of Delmas and West San Fernando. The route continues north from San Carlos Street along the west side of the SP (UP) tracks along the outside of the coach yards at Diridon Station. From Diridon the line requires a subway under the SP tracks south of The Alameda, then proceeds across the street from Sharks' Stadium and right on Montgomery. The line continues left on a sort of extension of San Fernando Street and over Los Gatos Creek where a 'Stadium' station is proposed.

Land will have to be acquired for the extension of San Fernando Street over Los Gatos Creek. This will involve the removal of at least one or two small businesses (auto repair shops, etc. are present here) along the west bank of the creek. On the east side of the creek to the corner of Delmas and San Fernando is a large open parking lot with just one building adjacent to the corner itself.

Delmas Alternative

At Delmas and San Fernando Streets, the rails would turn south on Delmas. The rails run about three blocks before turning left on San Carlos St., rejoining the existing route via the wye near the Tech-Center Station. This route is over twice as long as the direct route down San Carlos (about 1.5 miles versus about 0.7 miles from San Carlos at the SP Vasona Branch to San Carlos wye near Tech-Center). It also contains five additional 90 degree curves and a subway.

Delmas is a narrow, one-way residential street lined by condominiums along the west side of the street. Along the north end of the east side of the street are several well-kept Victorian homes. What is attractive to planners about using Delmas Street is the vacant land on the east-side of the street south of the Victorians. This lot exists courtesy of adjacent Highway 87 which removed the rest of the neighborhood via eminent domain several years ago. The Park is located here and would require extensive relocation and timed lights to accommodate light rail tracks. The Victorian houses are unlikely to survive this alternative as the street-width appears insufficient to allow them to remain. Light rail would complete the neighborhood desecration begun by Highway 87.

Many Delmas St. residents and building owners have expressed opposition to the plan. They are concerned about construction noise, future land use impacts, and noise from rail operations. One resident complained that he can already hear trains squealing around corners two blocks away at Tech-Center and questioned how loud the trains would be directly adjacent to their residence. Another resident expressed concern about the vibration caused by trains at all hours.

San Fernando Alternative

From the corner of San Fernando and Delmas the line would run into downtown via San Fernando Street. After passing under Highway 87, San Fernando St. is mostly commercial, hosting some large employment buildings as the street narrows near the Transit Mall at First and Second Streets.

This option would not provide Vasona Line passengers with direct rail connections to the current system. The line would cross the current system at 90° diamonds at both First and Second Streets, with a station between the two streets for required transfers. Cars need to transfer between the lines to reach the storage yard, so a connecting track would be constructed at San Fernando and Second. The line would continue down San Fernando to Fourth St. so as to serve the northwest corner of San Jose State University.

This routing is said to cost $13 million more than the Delmas Alternative. San Fernando St. would require extensive utility relocation and a longer portion of new rail since Delmas uses existing rail access to downtown. Operating in the narrow portion of the street would affect traffic, and construction could block the street completely. The construction phase time is estimated to be double that of the Delmas Alternative: 24 months versus 12 months. Downtown business owners, having already suffered customer losses during construction of the Transit Mall, balked at these estimates as unrealistically short.

SP Milpitas Alternative (Fast Track)

From San Carlos Street, the line would continue north to Diridon Station. From here it would depart from the other proposals, continuing north along the east side of the CalTrain tracks west of Shark's Stadium. The line would then curve east along the south side of the former SP Milpitas Line right-of-way. The Vasona Line would continue east along this line and tie into the existing light rail line near where the SP Milpitas Line crosses the light rail line near First and Bassett Streets (We will call this location 'The Junction' for simplicity). Union Pacific, which acquired SP in September 1996, recently embargoed the line to through freight traffic in anticipation of selling the right-of-way for future rail transit.

From Stadium Station to the junction with the existing line just north of the Transit Mall, the line would have a dedicated right-of-way. Only two street crossings exist in this stretch, lightly-used Montgomery and Autumn Streets, which serve a few industries located north of the south leg of the Milpitas Line wye. From here to The Junction, the right-of-way is very wide and there would be minimal impact on business or residential properties.

Going north to reach the Transit Mall may seem the long way, but is the fastest way. As shown in Table 1, rail distance from San Carlos Station via Fast Track is a fraction of a mile longer than the San Fernando or Delmas Alternatives. The VTA alternatives, with up to five 90-degree curves, traffic interference, and additional stops will average about 12 mph and will take at least as long to reach the center of the Transit Mall. Trains on Fast Track's dedicated right-of-way could reach a top speed of 55 mph from Stadium Station to The Junction with no intermediate stops. Fast Track is the fastest way to the center of the Mall, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Distance and Time to Downtown




San Carlos

1.5 miles

10 min.


1.9 miles

14 min.

San Fernando

1.7 miles

14 min.*

Fast Track

2.2 miles

9 min.

Table 2. Distance and Time to N. First St.




San Carlos

2.0 miles

13 min.


2.4 miles

17 min.

San Fernando

2.2 miles

20 min.*

Fast Track

1.6 miles

5 min.

Speed assumptions used in this analysis: 30 mph average on dedicated right of way with grade protection, 12 mph average on streets with mixed traffic and Mall, 1 minute per station delay to account for acceleration/deceleration and dwell.

* Includes walk or transfer.

Peak Hours Express

There are even bigger time savings for commuters. Table 2 shows that for trips to points north of the Mall (where most worksites are located), Fast Track is only transit route that is at all competitive with auto travel times. The time penalty created by other alternatives' on-street running, the numerous curves and the Mall would make the Vasona line nearly irrelevant for commuters. What's the point of rail if it's going to get stuck in traffic?

Peak hour expresses could run directly from the Vasona Line to employment centers along First Street (and eventually Lockheed and Sunnyvale), bypassing slow running on the Mall. Fast Track is significantly shorter than even the San Carlos routing to The Junction, and beats the Delmas Alternative by 0.8 miles.

Considering the massive speed advantages of Fast Track, time savings for commuters would be as much as a half-hour daily. Fast Track would actually reduce peak fleet requirements. Expresses could run during morning and evening commute hours, while other Vasona Line trains would run into the Transit Mall throughout the day.

Future BART Connection

Another major reason that Santa Clara County should choose Fast Track is that it ties into the best route for San Jose's line to BART. On the way to BART, an extension of Fast Track using the SP Milpitas Line would run via Japantown and a dense corridor of high-tech employment. Fast Track makes even more sense once there is San Jose to BART service. The same time savings shown in Table 2 would also benefit BART-bound commuters.

Running via Fast Track to The Junction will allow maximum flexibility in a future system which connects to Milpitas and BART. The Junction could eventually become the primary transfer point for passengers transferring from north-south to east-west trains, and trains could transfer from line to line in any number of combinations here. Although VTA's claims that the Transit Mall will reach capacity with 5-minute headways are doubtful, the Vasona Line trains could eventually continue across the current line directly to BART, allowing more capacity in the Transit Mall. Regardless, the flexibility at The Junction will be great.

The Junction

The Junction between the Vasona Line and the existing line near Bassett and First Streets will be the most complex aspect of Fast Track. Currently, the SP Milpitas freight line (crossing gate at left in photo) crosses First Street at grade while the light rail line uses an underpass (red, white, and blue tile graphics visible in median at right in photo) beneath the freight line in the median of First Street. Thankfully, the land adjacent to northwest and southwest quadrants of The Junction is still undeveloped. Otherwise, connecting the two routes would be considerably more expensive. The parcel in the northwest quadrant (left in photo behind crossing gate) is owned by Union Pacific and is currently for sale. The southwest quadrant (foreground) is owned by the San Jose Redevelopment Agency. [Webmaster's note: the photo for The Junction did not work. See original newsletter for the photo.]

Several options exist for track connections between Vasona and the Transit Mall. The cheapest would be to make all connections at grade. Inbound Vasona Line trains would cross over the subway on the existing Bassett St bridge and turn right onto Second St (this corner is currently a bus staging area) and proceed south one block to tie in with the Transit Mall at Julian and Second St. Outbound trains would be a little more difficult to tie in. One alternative would be to jog a line into the northbound lane on First Street (with traffic) and extend the Bassett Street bridge south to cover the subway to allow the trains to curve onto Bassett Street.

To accommodate the connecting track for expresses, Union Pacific may consider abandoning the freight line south of Taylor Street and serve the industries north of there from switch engines out of Warm Springs, because all through trains now operate via the Newark Line. If the freight line stays, an underpass could be built to connect.

Cahill/Diridon Transfer Station

VTA's proposed site for a Diridon transfer platform is west of the coach yards. A major extension of the Diridon Station platform subway would be built west under the coach yards. This would make transfers to CalTrain about as unpleasant as those at Tamien Station, where passengers have to climb down a set of stairs and under several freeway lanes in a sort of concrete maze inhospitably placed in the middle of a freeway.

There is certainly a better way to provide transfers at Diridon. Under the Fast Track proposal, a flyover would be built over the south throat of the coach yards at Diridon Station, bringing light rail tracks along former Track One between CalTrain platforms and Diridon Station. This allows easier transfers between rail systems and easier access to Diridon Station. If necessary, CalTrain facilities could be shifted one platform west, and an additional platform built.

Another advantage of running the light rail east of CalTrain tracks is the simplicity of the structure for crossing The Alameda / West Santa Clara Street. Rather than a complex, curved flyover or a subway, the line would pass over The Alameda on a simple bridge parallel to and just east of the CalTrain Bridge.

Safer Around Shark Stadium

Stadium management doesn't want passengers 'bunching up' along The Alameda after events while waiting for light rail vehicles, according to VTA officials. Therefore the 'Stadium' Station is proposed to be located a few blocks southeast of the Stadium across Los Gatos Creek, even though the tracks pass just across The Alameda from the Stadium.

Event goers who choose to use this inconvenient station will have to follow the tracks two blocks to catch a train, and, if travelling outbound, will pass in front of the Stadium again. One can certainly imagine event-goers watching as an outbound train comes at them during the long walk. Would it be a stretch to imagine that the occasional, half-inebriated Sharks fan will try to flag down one of these trains by blocking its path?

Fast Track allows for a convenient station along the west side of the west parking lot of the Stadium which won't interfere with auto traffic. Trains will be in their own right-of-way separate from any city streets. Patrons can access light rail by simply crossing the parking lot. As the Stadium Station will be only a block from Diridon and serve no other facilities, trains would only stop during Stadium events. At all other times, trains would run nonstop from Diridon to The Junction. Fast.

Unity and Strategy

Fast Track has major objective advantages over all other currently proposed alternatives. In this case, MTS finds itself in complete agreement with residential groups who do not want light rail in their neighborhoods, and with business owners who do not want downtown San Jose streets torn up yet again for a protracted construction period. There is a better answer. The Fast Track route satisfies the needs of each of these groups.

Fast Track allows an earlier start to service to the Vasona Line and allows construction and operation outside of residential neighborhoods. Downtown interests can appreciate Fast Track because it will bring in customers and employees via the existing Transit Mall, without losing customers during years of torn-up streets. Less utility relocation and construction on city streets also means much less cost.

Planners at the VTA have worked hard to get the alternatives narrowed down to the current proposals. Opposition from residential or business groups to both current proposals is inevitable, however, due to the various problems noted above.

On the other hand, Fast Track offers a solution to all known business and residential group objections. It provides answers to almost all objections to the line voiced at the Community Workshop, including the location of the planned 'Stadium' station and the slow, winding routes into downtown.

VTA officials will have to be convinced soon to step back from current proposals and give serious consideration to this alternative. A united front of transit advocate, business, and residential groups supporting Fast Track would go a long way towards ensuring its implementation. Instead of each group telling county officials what each does not want, a united front backing Fast Track presents a positive proposal which nullifies many objections, gets the project moving, and provides better and faster service.

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