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What is VTA Light Rail?

By Brenda Scott
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) is a special district responsible for public transportation, congestion management, special highway improvement projects, and countywide transportation planning for Santa Clara, California, USA. The VTA was formed in 1995 by a merger of the Santa Clara County Transit District and the County Congestion Management Agency. Funded through sales tax revenues, the agency operates three VTA light rail lines, buses and a paratransit service, which provides door-to-door shuttle service for handicapped. The VTA light rail is an electric light rail system providing mass transit from Santa Clara to San Jose, CA.

VTA light rail vehicles run on tracks with a medium gauge of 4 feet 8.5 inches (1.435 m). Opened in 1987, the system has expanded to two main lines and one spur, with more extensions planned. The Alum Rock – Santa Teresa line travels through Milipitas and downtown San Jose, and the Mountain View – Winchester line travels from Mountain View, through Sunnyvale, Santa Clara and North San Jose, terminating in western Campbell. Almaden Shuttle is a spur with runs from Ohlone/Chyoweth Station to Almaden, with at stop at the Westfield Oakridge Mall.

For safety reasons, trains on the VTA light rail are all operated manually. In the cities of San Jose and Santa Clara, tracks are laid in the middle of existing streets, and the rest of the system runs along highly congested areas. The need to quickly react to unexpected situations makes manual operation safer than a computer-driven system. As an extra precaution, all trains are equipped with an emergency control which the driver holds as he maneuvers the vehicle. If there is a sudden change in pressure, such as a driver letting go because he has become incapacitated, an emergency brake is triggered.

Operators for the VTA light rail participate in an extensive training course encompassing all aspects of rail operations and driving safety. Prior to training with an experienced operator, new personnel practice without passengers for several weeks under controlled conditions. Additional safety features include touch screen computers that allow the operator to monitor train systems, and video cameras in place of traditional rear view mirrors.

VTA light rail started with high floor vehicles, which required passengers to step up from the platform into the car. In an effort to be more accessible to the disabled, the transit authority replaced these cars with low floor vehicles, offering level access from the platform and eliminating the need for wheelchair lifts. The adjustment also improves access for commuters entering the trains with their bicycles. Each VTA light rail car contains four bike racks, and can carry a maximum of six bikes. For those commuters who wish to leave their bikes at the station, each stop is equipped with bicycle lockers.

Light rail fares are the same as bus fares, and tickets can be purchased at any light rail station. Various options are available, such as a single ride ticket good for two hours on the VTA light rail only, or a day pass which provides unlimited access for all busses and light rail lines for the date of purchase. Monthly passes, which also provide unlimited access, are economical options for regular commuters.

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