Two people killed when car struck by VTA light trail train

A Valley Transportation Agency light-rail train collided with a car in the Buena Vista section of San Jose on Sunday. Two people inside the car were killed and investigators say the driver went around the crossing arms, causing the loss of life.

“The crossing arms were down, and the driver went around it,” said San Jose Police Department spokesman Sgt. Enrique Garcia.

Investigators say the fatal collision happened around 12:30 p.m. Sunday, on Lincoln Avenue, where the VTA tracks cross the roadway. VTA officials say the train was traveling at 55 miles per hour, which is the speed limit along that section of track. As it moved across the roadway, with warning gates and lights  activated, the driver of a gold Buick Regal went around the gates and was broadsided. Both he and a male passenger were killed.

“When the crossing arms are down, they need to stop and even if they look in both directions, they don’t know how fast the train could be coming,” said Garcia.

Officials with the largest rail safety organization say typically, drivers underestimate the speed of an approaching train, and try to cross the tracks, often with deadly consequences..

“You absolutely have an optical illusion where you think the train might be moving slower than it appears. They’re large and they appear like they’re not moving as quickly,” said Nancy Sheehan, the California state coordinator for Operation Lifesaver.

San Jose officials say Sunday’s loss of life marks the 23rd fatal traffic collision. The VTA confirms a fatal bike incident at this site, but none involving a car until now. Nationally, California has consistently ranked near the top in fatal collisions involving trains and vehicles for several years. Even so, the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute stresses the VTA system is safe.

“The higher proportion of accidents and fatalities that occur in California is due in part to the increased population and surface area compared to other states. And also because we are a major hub for freight goods,” said Dr. Karen Philbrick, the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute.

Officials say in the vast majority of cases, increasing safety starts with drivers making better choices when confronted with tracks and a split second to stop or try to cross.

“Somebody saw an obstacle and they decided to just ignore that obstacle and go around it,” said Sgt. Garcia.

Twenty passengers on the light-rail train were evaluated and did not report any injuries. The train’s operator was taken for testing, which is standard procedure. The names of the driver and male passenger have not been released, as detectives try to notify their loved ones.