Monday, April 13, 2009

Tasman West - a decade later

It was almost 10 years when the Tasman West line opened for service. In April 1999, VTA announced that the light rail line would open in December, and applauded itself as an agency that could deliver project on-time and under budget.

At that time the Valley was in the height of the dot-com bubble. VTA ran more service back then, with light rail service every 10 minutes. With the high employment rate there was an urgency to deliver more transit service to this sprawling area. There were nothing but high expectations for the Tasman West line especially when it would connect with major employment sites north of the freeways.

When all planned extensions are built, by 2004, ridership could top 40,000 a day. "I think we'll surpass that real quick,'' said Pete Cipolla, general manager of the Valley Transportation Authority, which oversees bus and light-rail operations. "I think we're real conservative on the 7,500 new riders we expect on Tasman West (the Mountain View line). "And when we go to the east, ridership will skyrocket.''

VTA began constructing the line from Mountain View, and proceed onto connecting with the original line at Old Ironsides. In March of 99, VTA trucked in its first light rail car from San Jose to Mountain View to begin line testing. Two months later, VTA closed the segment between Tasman and Old Ironsides stations to retrofit the platforms (which eventually took 9 years to complete systemwide). The Tasman West line was designed for low-floor light rail cars.

When the line opened in December, a few weeks before entering year 2000, VTA ran trains every 10 minutes throughout the day. For the first month, VTA waived fares on that line because of a delay in the delivery of ticket vending machines. Over the years, due to low ridership and decline in sales tax revenue, VTA reduced service. Today the light rail line runs every 30 minutes between 9am and 2pm, 1/3 of what VTA provided in 2000.

Nearly a decade later, with light rail ridership peaked at around 38,000 six months ago, the Tasman line is the least productive segment in the whole light rail network. According to the recent Annual Transit Service Plan, stations along the Tasman West line are among the lowest in terms of ridership:

Bayshore/NASA - 64
Evelyn - 79
Moffett Park - 79
Whisman - 115
Borregas - 122

Compare that to...

Great Mall - 1265
Santa Clara - 1338
Paseo de San Antonio - 1599

Note: Mountain View station's ridership is quite high at 1318 (3rd highest in the system).

Unlike other parts of the light rail, the Tasman West line largely runs on street median and has many sharp turns, which contribute to its slow speed. From 1999 to 2005, direct service to downtown San Jose was not available and riders had to transfer at Baypointe. It takes nearly an hour to get from Downtown San Jose to Mountain View on light rail. For riders commuting from south of downtown San Jose, the travel time is even longer. Overall, the light rail line was no faster than the bus (line 20 from San Antonio Shopping Center to Milpitas) that it replaced.

If light rail were not built along that corridor, that corridor probably wouldn't have enough ridership to support Bus Rapid Transit. However, some BRT critics said that BRT is based on the mentality that "public transit riders don’t deserve the highest quality transit available," and that BRT "has no place in any transportation system." Given the obvious failure of this line, BRT critics ought to ask themselves whether rail is always a superior alternative, especially if the alignment and surrounding land use do not favor transit? Improved bus service would at least provide a more flexible service, as well as running non-stop from residential areas directly to employment sites. After repeat attempts to cancel the service, VTA still operates line 122 (although only one round trip) from Santa Teresa to Lockheed Martin. The line somewhat duplicates light rail, but the bus travels faster. For the time the bus takes from South San Jose to Lockheed, light rail would only take you to Tasman for a transfer.


arcady said...

Having spent 3 months living right on this line, and there's a few suggestions I can make to the VTA. First, I think there's more demand for Tasman West-Milpitas service than Tasman West-Downtown, judging by the number of people transferring at Tasman. Second, it's really, really annoying that the train has to stop at all those stops in the office parks even when there's nobody there, like in the evening and on weekends, because of the delayed-activation grade crossings. It would at least save a couple of minutes to not have to stop, and even if the train did stop, it's not like the crossing gates would delay anyone since there's no cars there either at night and on weekends. And finally, there's a huge amount of fare evasion going on on weekends, and nobody seems to ever check tickets (at least on the Tasman West line itself).

The bigger issue with this line is that it's fundamentally poorly planned: just by itself, a line winding through the office parks isn't a bad idea, but it has to connect to residences at some point, and it mostly fails at that, because of the very slow ride through Downtown San Jose, and the moderately slow and rather too long ride up North 1st, so it ends up being a feeder from the Caltrain. I think in the long term, if VTA wants to expand light rail, it might be worthwhile to provide a north-south line, perhaps extending south from Lockheed Martin station along Mathilda all the way to Cupertino, or along Lawrence, or something. That would at least connect the large residential areas to the south with the large office parks to the north.

accountablevta said...

VTA realigned the service the way it is now because it would avoid double transfers for some passengers. The original plan called for direct service between Mountain View and Alum Rock. Vasona service would run from Winchester to Civic Center. If that were to happen, someone trying to get from Great America to Campbell would have to transfer twice, which they don't need today.

The reason for the direct Alum Rock - Mountain View service was that VTA did not plan to replace the entire fleet with low floor cars. VTA planned to buy new cars for the new line, and keep the old cars for the existing (and Vasona) lines. The cars are not compatible especially in terms of accessibility. Only after the 2000 tax VTA went on a spending spree (and created a huge debt) to replace all the cars, and spend even more money retrofitting the platforms.

OccasionalRider said...

Agree totally about the fare evasion...make it free for everyone or enforce the fare with conductors.

Agree totally about the number of riders transferring at Tasman. It's actually quite funny to see people crammed onto that little station on 1st street when that white elephant at Baypoint (presumably an important stop at one time) is completely devoid of life!

I thought at one time (maybe 1 year ago) it was stated in the Roadshow section of the Mercury News that they were considering offering a Mountain View - Alum Rock option (perhaps not a complete realignment but at least provide the option). They also indicated that the VTA was considering ways to make this line run faster. I have taken this line from River Oaks to just short of MV for work and I agree with arcady. Even in commute hours it is awefully slow. The trains will slow down even if there is nobody there...adding minutes to the trip time. It's maybe wishful thinking, but I cannot believe in Silicon Valley (of all places) we can't think up a way to communicate this information in advance (via WiFi perhaps) that a rider is wishing to get on.

arcady said...

OccasionalRider: in some places they have a button that you can push on the platform that activates a flashing light that the train operator can see. That might work, but even the current system where the driver looks out for people on the platform would be a huge improvement for Moffett Park, NASA/Bayshore, and Middlefield in the off peak hours. As for a direct service to Alum Rock, I think it might be reasonable to run a half-hourly service from Old Ironsides to Alum Rock, to fill in the gaps when the Mountain View to Winchester line runs half-hourly. Also, the layout of the stations in the Great America area is rather poor, and I wish there were a more direct transfer to the Capitol Corridor/ACE station. Also better timed transfers to bus services, now that everything is running on a 15 or 30 minute headway.

accountablevta said...

The idea of running trains from Alum Rock to Mountain View is part of the COA VTA is now conducting for light rail.

When planning route in that line, let's not forget there's a single track segment leading to the Mountain View station. When VTA ran trains every 10 minutes, trains often have to wait at Whisman for the opposite train before going in. Unless you have a pretty short turnaround time in Mountain View, skipping low ridership stop may not speed up the trip because the train would have to wait at Whisman, but everyelse want to go to Mountain View.

arcady said...

According to the VTA, the travel time from Whisman to Mountain View is four minutes. And in the current timetable, during rush hours, trains have a 15 minute turnaround at Mountain View, with a San Jose-bound train leaving right as the Mountain View-bound train arrives. Normally trains pass each other around the NASA/Bayshore station. I think they could push the headways a little bit closer if they really wanted to, but I don't see the demand for that yet. And my proposed improvements (eliminating the delayed activation at crossings) only applies in the off peak, when they have 30 minute headways anyway. Also, it may not improve travel time much (a two minute improvement would be very optimistic), but it will at least make it feel faster, when the train doesn't make all those pointless stops when nobody gets on or off. And these perceptions of speed matter more than you might think.

295bus said...

I stare at these trains every day waiting for CalTrain @ MV, so I've spent a lot of time wondering if this line could be salvaged into something more useful.

First of all, it actually gets a decent amount of ridership as a CalTrain feeder. "Short turn" runs going back and forth between MV and maybe as far as the Yahoo campus, to keep midday frequency up, is probably a good idea.

If there were money, I think an *extension* of the line down Shoreline to server Google would be a big hit (and get a lot of use when something's playing at the Amphitheater, too).

And if money were *really* no object, I think the line could actually be made useful for longer E/W trips if you could take out some of that godawful slow zigzagging around Java Dr, etc. Maybe run it in the median of the 237 part of the way.

accountablevta said...

If VTA were to keep the 15 minute headway, VTA could speed up the trip by getting rid of the Whisman timepoint, so that the train could leave earlier than the currently scheduled times.

However under the current schedule, if the train arrives late to Mountain View, the next train cannot leave Mountain View until that late train arrives, which could cause further delays for other trains in Campbell since there are two more single track sections. Of course, the line is scheduled the way it is because of the single track areas.

arcady said...

One more comment about the line: the only thing that could really improve it is changes in the built environment around it. Fortunately, at least before this latest crisis, there were definite signs of densification around the line. One and two story buildings are being replaced with five story buildings, and there are even some eight story "skyscrapers" at Moffett Park. Ultimately, that's the only way they're going to be able to increase the ridership base on the existing line.

accountablevta said...

The Tasman line indeed plays a major role as a Caltrain feeder. Some passengers board on 1st Street or transfer at Tasman and ride all the way to Mountain View. Not many people get on and off at Vienna and Reamwood stations.

Express Rider said...

I remember Line 20. Line 20 most productive segment was the California Avenue. The vast majority of the route was not performing. Two or three years before it was discontinued, service was scaled back from operating 15 to 20 minutes during peak, with early and late evening trips discontinued.

During the construction phase of Tasmen West there was a proposal that I like that would have merged Line 20 and 74. Line 74 from Eastridge on Capitol and at Great Mall would have continued on Tasmen as the Line 20 to San Antonio Mall. The Milpitas portion (Weller/Main to Dixon) would have been covered by Line 66 (as it does today). The concern was over Line 74's new extention to Mc Carthy Ranch, and Milpitas terminus hadn't relocated to Great Mall would have forced many riders. So the 20/74, was never implemented. When Line 20 was discontinue and LRT was in full operation, customer service had a surge of complaints regarding the number of forced tranfers between Milpitas and Mountain View.

Express Rider said...

Occasional Rider:
There is an Express/BRT/LRT/Shuttles Study underway, similar to Comprehensive Operational Analysis.

LRT Options: How to reduce redundant service on 1st Street? How to move trains faster between Downtown SJ and Mountain View (ab, a, b stops)?
How to provide express trains from E. SJ to Mt. View and S. SJ to Mt. View?

For the expresses: how to make expresses compatible with the automobile-----toll roads coming,
Looking at new markets. Rebranding existing routes as HWY/BRT Express - could be higher fares.

For shuttles: Profitable shuttles, VTA wants to operate them.

accountablevta said...

Line 20 had the benefit of connecting with 22 and 23 at San Antonio Shopping Center. Today, the light rail does not connect with 22 in Mountain View, and line 23 no longer goes to San Antonio. What used to be a one seat ride now takes 3 transfers.

arcady said...

accountablevta: do you have maps or timetables from the era when the 20, 22, and 23 connected at San Antonio? I haven't been following the development of the VTA for all that long, and it would be interesting to see how the network evolved to get where it is today.

Iin Chang said...

Here were the schedules and maps for all the routes at the time before 20 was eliminated:

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