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The end of a modern light rail line

written by andy on

Over the weekend, VTA’s PR team has been promoting the agency’s new bus network that is redesigned around the new BART stations that have yet to open due to numerous construction related delays. Part of the redesign also involved elimination or service reductions of unproductive routes. One of those routes eliminated is the Almaden light rail branch.

The light rail branch was constructed with the southern portion of the Guadalupe main line in the early 1990s. That right of way is part of a former rail spur coming off of what currently is the Caltrain mainline on Monterey Highway. That spur line went all the way down the Almaden Valley. There was another spur line coming off what is currently the Vasona light rail line, following down the path of what is currently Camden Avenue. Those spur lines were built to serve the mercury mines in the valley, as well as the Almaden Winery.

Highlighted is the original rail spur, as recorded on the USGS maps from 1889 (above) and 1916 (below)

The southern portion of the line (south of Almaden station) was closed around 1930s due to closure of the mines, but rail traffic continued on the rest of the spur up to and through the 1970s and it was formally abandoned in 1981.

1950s USGS maps

After the closure the rail spur has been included in the planning for transit on the Gaudalupe corridor (Highway 87). In a 1981 study, planners proposed a light rail alternative, along with other alternatives such as bus lanes on expressway or freeway. The light rail alternative was chosen and built along with a new freeway. The initial light rail alignment on North 1st Street was opened in 1987. The rest of the light rail in downtown San Jose and South San Jose was opened in the latter years until completion in 1991. At the same time, Caltrain service was extended from San Jose Cahill Street to Tamien to connect with the light rail.

The present State Route 85 and 87 rights-of-way that comprise much of the Guadalupe Corridor have been designated for proposed freeways since the 1950s and 1960s. The state and county purchased a large amount of property within the designated rights-of-way. Pursuant to the freeway designation, title to all property purchased by the county was transferred to CALTRANS ownership in July, 1970. By 1972, right-of-way purchasing was suspended due to lack of funding and the implementation of new environmental legislation…

Planning for mass transportation in Santa Clara County began in earnest in 1974 with the “Rapid Transit Development Project”. The County Transit District contracted a study to investigate alternative transit system technologies, delineate high ridership demand corridors, and identify the financial costs and environmental, social and economic impacts of large scale rapid transit systems capable of attracting 30 percent of all daily person trips made in the County.

Guadalupe Corridor Transportation Project, Santa Clara County: Environmental Impact Statement

The idea of the corridor was to bring commuters from the bedroom suburbs in South San Jose to the suburban office parks of early Silicon Valley up north, and turn Downtown San Jose into a shopping and entertainment destination. The downtown’s Fairmont Hotel and Convention Center were all built with the support of the city’s redevelopment agency in the late 1980s. The city tried hard to put a shopping mall in downtown, but that “Pavilion” mall didn’t last very long.

The Almaden branch had always been operated as a shuttle route from Ohlone/Chynoweth with a single light rail car. While the service provided was efficient and frequent (every 10 minutes back in the day), ridership had always been poor for many reasons. In numerous times VTA proposed to end the Alamden service, first in 2003 (when it proposed a 21% service cut) and 2009. Both times the line was saved but not this time.

To check out the situation, I spent a half-hour riding the shuttle one recent afternoon. It was mostly empty, though we had a brief moment of excitement when eight people — two couples, three teens and an old man — got on at Oakridge station.

Scott Herhold – June 2009, A little rail line in jeopardy

In 2009, VTA thought about integrating the Almaden branch into mainline service, which could help boost ridership. However lack of funding, and lack of a staging/turnback facility (pocket track) in downtown basically put the idea off the table. VTA did implement express LRT (as extra trips from Santa Teresa to Baypointe) in 2010 but discontinued in 2018.

This time VTA decided to kill this route after a more methodological approach was taken to redraw the network, which helped brought politicians to come to terms of whether to keep or kill the service, and also without express intention to massively reduce overall service, but rather to reallocate service hours where there’s more ridership potential. Transit service will still be available along this route, but it would be with a bus (as part of a longer route from Downtown) at a 30 minute headway.

On one hand, while there’s no dispute that this line had terrible ridership, cutting this line is no way progress, because we remember back in the day when streetcar lines were discontinued in San Jose and across the country and buses were promoted as a superior substitute when they were not.

On the other hand, there are no easy solutions to save this line. Being in the suburbs, riders can easily access Ohlone/Chynoweth and board the main line there directly. Plenty of parking is available at that stop. Ohlone/Chynoweth is also within a short biking (and scootering as I did on the final night) distance away from other stops. The increasing wealth and access to automobiles in the community also negatively impact ridership. The line lacks captive destinations (like airports, universities, or stadia) where parking is expensive and people have a financial incentive to take transit. Suburban malls like Oakridge have free parking and that mall is not anywhere unique enough for people from outside of South San Jose to take light rail and shop there.

Another factor not well mentioned is that, VTA, like many transit agencies throughout the Bay Area and beyond, has an operator shortage. In the last day of the Almaden line, VTA had cancelled a trip on the blue line during peak hours, turning a 15 minute wait into a 30 minute wait.

Throughout the 2000s VTA used these lcons to represent light rail lines. The icon of orange grapes represented the Almaden line, which was supposed to pay homage to the old Almaden Winery. I guess this is time to get some boxed Almaden wine to celebrate the end of a decade now. Cheers.

Image result for almaden boxed wine