The first of BART’s new train cars were supposed to roll out this week. At least, that’s what we were told back in October. Now, it’s going to be by the end of November. Or maybe the middle of December. KALW’s Hana Baba spoke with reporter Eli Wirtschafter about what to expect from the new BART fleet, and when to expect it.
HANA BABA: So let’s start with this. Why is BART getting new cars?
ELI WIRTSCHAFTER: Well BART has the oldest cars of any train system in the country. The design has been basically the same since President Nixon rode them when they were launched in 1972. So they’re getting old, they’re expensive to maintain. They’re noisy, they can’t handle the number of riders BART has today. The new fleet is meant to deal with those problems, and give a big update to the computer software that controls the trains too.
HANA: And what will the new cars look like? You’ve seen them, right?
ELI: Yeah, a few of the new cars were delivered to BART last year. They’ve been testing them and making modifications since then. So, no riders yet. But in October of last year I went to check them out at one of the first public showings.
The biggest visible difference with the new cars is that there are three sets of doors. In addition to the two sets of doors we’re used to, there’s a third entrance in the middle. That should make it easier to board more quickly.
HANA: And for all these people who came to check out the new trains — what were their reactions?
ELI: They were excited! I met two women from San Francisco who had come to Oakland for brunch and decided to postpone their brunch plans after they realized they could see the new trains first. This is Cole Brennan.
COLE BRENNAN: It looks a lot smoother, more modern. Even more futuristic, is that possible?
ELI: The old trains were like Jetsons-style futuristic. These new trains feel like the 2017 future we actually live in because there are screens everywhere. The new trains have digital displays showing the BART map, and where your train is on the map. You know it’s so hard on the trains we’re used to, to have any idea where you are and where you’re going. Four decades after BART went into service, it’s very common to see train systems with digital maps inside, and now BART’s catching up.
HANA: Something else that’s changed in the last four decades is how many people ride BART. Are the new cars set up to handle bigger crowds?
ELI: Yes, the new cars feel a lot more spacious. There are fewer seats, but there’s more standing room. Cole from San Francisco was happy to find there are a lot more handles to hold onto if you’re standing.
COLE: *gasp!* I can reach it!! (laughter)
ELI: How tall are you?”
COLE: I’m 5-2! So this is pretty exciting that I can reach the handles! Before it was often times I had to hold onto other people or pray, or, find a spot against a wall or something.
HANA: How about wheelchair access?
ELI: There are two spaces for wheelchairs — the same as in the old cars. But unlike in the old cars where wheelchair users could find a spot by any door, in the new design, the wheelchair spaces are only by the center doors. Marilyn Golden, who’s a Senior Policy Analyst with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, has some concerns about the design. She told me she’s worried that if the cars are at all full, it’ll be very hard for wheelchair users to maneuver in from either of the two side doors.
HANA And what will the roll-out of the new cars look like? Will they change over all at once?
ELI: No, it’s going to be very gradual. The whole process is planned to take six years. BART plans to add 150 cars each year until the current fleet has been replaced with the new fleet. So by 2022, the old fleet of 669 cars should be replaced by 775 new cars. BART says they’d like to increase that to more than a thousand, but they haven’t found the money for it yet. And the first 10 cars are supposed to go out before the end of the year, but that’s been delayed and delayed over and over again.
HANA: Yeah, so what’s the deal with these delays? When were the new cars originally supposed to go into service?
ELI: Back in April BART said they expected it to be June. And then it changed to September. And then to Thanksgiving week. Now, officials are saying later this month, “possibly early December” — by December 15 at the latest. And that’s just for the first ten cars.
HANA: And so what’s caused all the delays?
ELI: It’s mostly been problems with part of the electrical system, which is built by Mitsubishi. Early on BART was testing one of the cars on a test track, and the electrical system fritzed out, and the train slowly derailed off the track.
There’s been other issues as well. Like there was a problem where the cars didn’t stop on the black lines like they’re supposed to. All in all, BART made more than 2,900 modifications to the test cars that were sent out, according to Jim Allison, a BART spokesperson.
And the latest delay — the reason we can’t ride a new train this week — is because during a recent test run with state regulators, the doors failed to open. BART says now they’ve got a fix for those problems, they just need to run the state tests one more time.
HANA: What’s the cost of this project?
ELI: Over $2.5 billion total, which comes out to around $3.4 million per car. Some of that is paid for by Measure RR, a bond measure that Bay Area voters passed last year.
HANA: And has the cost gone up because of all these delays? Who’s paying for that?
ELI: Jim Allison from BART told me that their costs for the project haven’t gone up at all. The company that’s making the cars is called Bombardier. They’re based in Quebec and they assemble the cars in New York. Bombardier didn’t respond to my inquiry in time, but BART says if there are any cost overruns, Bombardier will pay for them.
HANA: Okay, and one more time, when can we actually ride them?
ELI: Before December 15, BART officials are saying. But don't hold your breath for like some dramatic change overnight. It’s just starting with 10 new cars in the whole system. If you want to ride one, you have to get lucky, or just ride on BART a lot. It’ll be three or four years before the majority of cars are new. Until then, we’ll still be living with the fleet of the past.