A Look at Proposed BART Improvements in November 2016 Ballot Measure

Modern signals will mean more capacity. Source: BART
Modern signals will mean more capacity. Source: BART

If passed by the BART Board this summer, the November ballot will have a $3 billion-plus bond on it to help BART upgrade its infrastructure, including about $400 million for new train controls and signals. BART’s communications staff released some graphics to help voters understand exactly how much additional capacity that will buy, and what that will mean from a rider perspective.

Unlike with an automobile, a train takes a very long time to stop. So the driver of a train can’t moderate speed simply by watching the back of the next train without risking a rear-end collision (certainly not if the trains are travelling at speed). Traditionally, railroads work on a block-signal system–trackside signals keep trains a safe distance apart by splitting the right-of-way into segments. A train is not permitted to proceed to the next segment of track until the train in front of it has moved out of it. That assures that trains will never collide. It’s what’s usually happening when you’re on a train that stops between stations for no apparent reason–it means a train in front of it was delayed (often for something as simple as someone holding a door). It causes delays to ripple back–so a single delayed train can cause problems way down the line. It also limits capacity.

Here’s another way of looking at it, from a BART statement:

The current train control system is called a track circuit-based system with hard wired electronics. In its day, it was cutting edge. It divides BART’s entire 104 miles of track into smaller fixed segments, or “blocks.” Imagine a series of hotel rooms with adjoining doors. A train is not allowed to use an adjoining door to enter a room until a train in that room has exited through the other adjoining door.

This “go, no-go” movement is managed digitally through a system that’s based on the track circuit. The train control fixed blocks are just like the hotel rooms – you can’t move the walls.

But a modern computer, with the proper signal electronics, can run more trains closer together, always keeping a safe distance so one train will never be close enough that it can’t stop before hitting the next. In other words, with modern signals and controls, you can move the walls of the hotel rooms, surrounding each train with an electronic safety “bubble” that will slow a train if it starts getting too close to the one in front of it. Under this system, trains rarely stop in-between stations unless there’s a serious breakdown.

So how much delay time on BART is attributed to its aged signals and controls? Here it is BART’s words:

NUMBER ONE CAUSE OF DELAYS: Currently, more than half of BART’s infrastructure related delays are due to the train control system, causing BART riders to face more than 400 hours of delay each year.

The new system will also be just plain safer:

“Train control is safety-critical,” said Tom Dunscombe, BART’s Group Manager of Train Control Modernization. “Train control will slow down and safely stop the trains as required for normal operations or in the event of an equipment failure.”

The second BART graphic helps illustrate how modern train systems work.

If computers know exactly where the trains are at all times, they can run closer together--and capacity goes way up. Source: BART
If computers know exactly where the trains are at all times, they can run closer together–and capacity goes way up. Source: BART

Of course, this is only one improvement BART is hoping to make. It’ll also be replacing rails, power distribution, and, of course, the cars themselves.

The San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) is also getting the message out, at the same time fighting for more ambitious improvements, such as a second Transbay tube. And tonight, BART Board Member Nick Josefowitz will talk more about what needs done at the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition offices, starting at 5:30 pm.

  • crazyvag

    Not to be nitpicky the the first graphic is showing 50% more capacity while text only mentions 25% increase in capacity.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    BART initiated this project in 1993 and has squandered tens of millions on it already, with no successful results. Some of the jokers who mismanaged the project the first time (like Keller, Blalock, and StreetsBlog BFF Radulovich) are still on the BART board. Why will the project succeed this time?

  • crazyvag

    Also, below the first graphic, there’s a mention of “Enhanced Traction Power”. Does that just mean throwing in an additional substation (one that hopefully doesn’t have those mysterious spikes)? Or does it actually require the better acceleration/braking of the new fleet?

  • sojourner_7

    The new cars are already paid for. And 3.5 Billion should buy miles more than a new computer system. That might be 3.5 million? They dream of 1000x that amount. Big Balls for such a screwed up agency. Guess they can ask, but. Just Say No.

  • sojourner_7

    Don’t look too closely, as nothing actually makes sense, except the hope, “give us money”

  • Why will the project succeed this time?

    Only time will tell if it succeeds, but it’s far more likely now that James “Broken Promises” Fang is no longer on the BART board.

  • zippy_monster

    Let’s not forget how well the moving block (CBTC) system works for Muni…

  • david vartanoff

    If BART wants my vote, several commitments must be made. 1. Honor local transit passes from AC and other agencies on the same basis as Muni. 21. commit to 24/7 service within 5 years. 3. agree not to build further extensions into low density suburbs.

    As to the promised improvements, CTA was able to schedule trains in their State St subway every 105 seconds (basically 30 TPH) with mechanical relay based block signals in the 1950s.

  • Charles Siegel

    From 24 to 30 trains per hour looks like 25% to me. 24 * .25 = 6

  • Rogue Cyclist

    I’m with you on #1 and #3. It would be awesome to do short hops within Oakland. The Livermore extension is the latest wasteful project.

    24/7 service isn’t going to happen without alot more investment.

  • Rogue Cyclist

    Directors Saltzman and Raburn are on our side, so there’s some hope.

  • I think they mean that the top graphic shows a train 50% longer.

  • Charles Siegel

    Good point. I didn’t notice that.
    I think the graphic wanted us to compare the lengths of the lines, rather than the number of train cars shown on the lines, but they should have avoided confusion by creating a graphic that works both ways.

  • BART should worry more about increasing frequency during non-peak hours and weekends to generate ridership outside of the core commuting period rather than 24/7 operations.

  • SPUR likes to talk about ambitious improvements (which is great), but I really don’t see them doing any actual combat with transit agencies and elected officials to get things moving. Heck, I could have told you 16 years ago when I moved here from the east coast that we needed a second (or third) tube and Geary was in desperate need of a subway, for starters. SPUR, correct me if I’m wrong.

  • crazyvag

    Actually, if you ignore the turns at Embarcadero which are all due to Muni employees, the moving block works efficiently. I’ve seen cars follow each other at slow speeds closely. When two cars are stopped, as soon as first car moves about 10 feet, the following car starts accelerating.

    IMO, the biggest issues are switches on embarcadero. In some moronic setup, the train has to leave the station in order to request a green signal. Then it sits there with doors closed sometimes as long as a minute for a green cycle while passengers desperately bang on the doors. Better drivers will enable to doors to be opened by outside button, but that’s a rare exception.

    This happens on both N & T outbound platforms on 4th & King and on Embarcadero Folsom.

  • crazyvag

    Livermore extension was a good project when it was connecting with ACE in downtown Pleasanton (or was it Downtown Livermore). The new extension doesn’t connect with anything.

  • RichLL

    Most BART stations do not “connect with anything” and yet are very busy and popular.

    US cities typically don’t do integrated networked transit systems like they have in Europe because the voters prefer piecemeal solutions and moderate government.

  • 1MegaBeast2

    I would vote no. BART is at capacity everyday revenues are as high as ever. The only reason for loses are incompetence. Even though it is public transportation they should be profitable. You don’t reward greed and stupidity. Try au tomating to save money and get rid of the pension moochers.

  • DragonflyBeach

    Wasn’t James Fang in favor of urban BART lines rather than suburban? Seems like a good guy.

  • Not really. Every time he was up for election he promised to build a Geary Street subway. As far as I’m aware, he never actually did anything to move that project forward. In typical sleazy politician fashion, his promises were only made to win votes.


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