BART riders hope help is on the way with new cars
As the first car in BART’s new fleet arrived in Hayward on Tuesday for testing, riders said they were cautiously optimistic about whether the cars would significantly improve their commute.
The new train cars are part of BART’s “Fleet of the Future,” a $2.6 billion effort to replace its 669 cars with 775 new ones over the next five years, according to BART spokesman Jim Allison. Ultimately, Allison said, the transit agency would like to add an additional 306 cars, bringing the total size of its fleet to 1,081 and increasing its capacity by 49 percent from current levels, but funding hasn’t yet been identified for this second expansion phase.
For BART riders who braved last week’s mechanical meltdown that sidelined scores of cars and shut down service between the North Concord and Bay Point stations, the expansion can’t come soon enough. If testing goes as planned and no major re-engineering is required, the agency expects the first car will start serving passengers by December. The test car that arrived this week will be followed by nine others throughout the year to make a 10-car test train.
The new fleet is just one part of BART’s modernization plan, which also includes a $432 million investment in its Hayward maintenance facility and a future $700 million to $900 million overhaul of its train control system, which Allison said will allow the agency to repair cars more quickly and run trains more frequently.
Adding capacity was perhaps the biggest concern among riders during a recent unscientific survey of BART riders. One passenger, Tamara Barak Aparton, described her commute as a “daily indignity,” a comment echoed in varying degrees by several fellow riders.
“My face is always pressed into someone’s armpit. A tall person is always hitting me in the head with the backpack they haven’t removed,” Barak Aparton said, adding she’s seen two women faint and regularly watches as arguments break out onboard.
Although the new fleet won’t allow too many more people than can currently cram into a train car, Allison said the new cars will be more comfortable, and a third door will allow people to get on and off with greater ease. The heating system will circulate air from the top of the car down to the bottom, producing more even circulation, Allison said. And, he added, doors that slide on the outside of the train and then lock into place will create a quieter ride. The seats are in a slightly different configuration, which includes two diagonally placed wheelchair spaces that disability advocates fought to include in the layout so people with mobility devices can sit closer together, said Sheri Burns, executive director of the Silicon Valley Independent Living Center.
The advocates were disappointed by the inclusion of a floor-to-ceiling pole in the center of the car, which makes it harder for people using a wheelchair to navigate, especially during a crowded commute. But Burns acknowledged that the compromise allows for people who are semi-ambulatory to have more stability as the car moves.
For Mellanie Malonosan Como, an Antioch resident who works in San Francisco, the new layout represents an opportunity to have different kinds of spaces for different kinds of passengers. Her biggest complaint, she said, is mixing long-distance commuters with bicyclists and airport travelers, who take up precious space with large luggage.
“You’re mixing everyone into one car,” she said. “The normal commuters want to have a nice commute and sit or stand and not have people taking up two to four seats with their luggage or bikes.”
The new cars might mitigate these concerns, with seats higher off the ground to allow more space to put belongings underneath and designated bike racks for cyclists. As someone who supports cycling, Jeremy Conley said bicyclists don’t often relish the feeling that they’re in everyone’s way and said he was looking forward to augmented bike access.
But with the recent equipment problems between Pittsburg and North Concord snarling the weekday commute, reliability was top on riders’ list of concerns.
“With the copious equipment problems and delays, it’s difficult to rely on BART for any kind of consistency for, say, a commute to work on time,” said San Francisco resident Jenneviere Villegas, who commutes from the Excelsior district to Montgomery station.
Theoretically, at least, Allison said, the new cars will have fewer maintenance needs and won’t be subject to the same voltage variation issues that are plaguing the system’s “C” cars, but he said, “There’s no guarantee.”
Though the new cars will go a long way in improving BART riders’ commute, Allison said there are many parts of the transit system that are as old as the train cars and need replacement. He pointed to sections of the tracks, the system’s power infrastructure, and sections of tunnels and stations that “are too old to keep patching up.”
“No matter how well-built and maintained they are, everything has a life span,” Allison said. “We’re really at a watershed moment in terms of getting the entire system ready for the next generation of BART passengers.”