BART Meltdown Highlights Vulnerability of Bay Area Infrastructure

Transbay and the West Oakland Approach is Region's Achilles Heel

A car knocked down this power pole, which essentially disabled the Bay Area for 90 minutes this morning. Photo: BART's Twitter Feed
A car knocked down this power pole, which essentially disabled the Bay Area for 90 minutes this morning. Photo: BART's Twitter Feed

One errant motorist crashed into a telephone pole and paralyzed the Bay Area this morning at 8:30, right in time for peak rush hour crowds.

From BART’s Twitter feed:

A Tweet no Bay Area commuter wants to see. Image: BART's Twitter feed
A Tweet no Bay Area commuter wants to see. Image: BART’s Twitter feed

The power line fell onto the BART right of way and trains couldn’t proceed until it was removed. Mainstream TV and newspapers ran pictures of some of the 400,000 frustrated commuters who use BART daily. Some tried to use car services, others crowded onto ferries and buses, but many simply had to go home. Service was restored about 90 minutes later, going by the timing of BART’s Twitter announcements. Residual delays continued for hours.

The incident was, for sure, frustrating. But, more importantly, it highlights just how vulnerable the Bay Area is to service disruptions.

What happens when it’s a derailment? Or an earthquake? Or a terrorist attack? What happens if Transbay is taken out for a few days, or a week, or longer?

“It’s not acceptable to have so little transportation network redundancy between the biggest nodes in the Bay Area,” said Ratna Amin, Transportation Policy Director for the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR). SPUR, along with other Bay Area advocacy groups, have long argued for a second Transbay tube. The issue, of course, is the cost: at around $13 billion, polling showed last year that voters would not pass Measure RR if it included funding for a second tube. It does, however, have some money to begin studying options, and Streetsblog hopes this morning’s incident can act as a reminder to get that in motion.

It also highlights the stupidity of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and the Trump Administration in cutting off federal funds for Caltrain electrification. What does that have to do with Transbay? SPUR studies and others have long concluded that a second Transbay crossing should be built to permit Caltrain to reach the East Bay. Electrification, combined with a Transbay tube built to standard gauge, would give Caltrain the same or greater capacity than BART. So cancelling the electrification funds may have also pushed Transbay redundancy off even further into the future. One can only hope the administration’s infrastructure plans will look at some of these vulnerabilities, in the Bay Area and other US economic centers, but so far that seems unlikely.

And in case you’re one of those people who thinks rideshare, or even driverless cars, can provide a suitable backup, this:

Sorry, but Uber and Lyft are not going to save the Bay Area if the Transbay tube ever has a major failure. From the BART Twitter feed.
Sorry, but Uber and Lyft are not going to save the Bay Area if the Transbay tube ever has a major failure…not if rides are between 71 and 85 dollars! From Farbod Jambor on the BART Twitter feed.

It’s not that there won’t ever be service problems if a second Transbay tube is built, but at least there would be a real backup for people trying to get to work. And that means a major failure of the existing Transbay tube wouldn’t have to crush the Bay Area economy. “These kinds of transit malfunctions aren’t going away and we can anticipate bigger transit disruptions to come in the Bay Bridge corridor,” said Amin.

Were you prevented from getting to work this morning? Did you try to get a bus, ferry or car across the Bay? How was information communicated by BART? And what do you think this incident says about the future vulnerabilities of the Bay Area to service disruptions?

Post your comments and pics below.


  • mortacai

    Errant motorist? Sure, blame him. But isn’t the real problem that BART didn’t underground their “vital” power supply rather than leave it at the whim of overground risks?

    Meanwhile, an anecdote, Today I took a downtown round-trip on SF Muni. Of the five escalators that I would have liked to use, only one was working.

    And then people wonder why we all want to keep our cars.

  • thielges

    Read the article again. It wasn’t BART’s power that got knocked out. Instead general purpose power lines fell on the BART tracks. Same could have happened to a freeway.

  • crazyvag

    Why can’t this wire run under the tracks? It’s ridiculous that such a small crash can take out BART.

  • mortacai

    Either way, we don’t know that the driver was “errant” from the article, so why assume that? And as crazyvag said, why can’t we keep these cables away from vulnerable infrastructure, say by burying them?

  • jonobate

    Here’s a recent update on the Core Capacity Transit Study, which includes a second bay crossing:

    There’s some interesting stuff in here, including consideration of separating some of the surface Muni Metro lines from the subway. But more relevant to this post is the assessment of various bay crossing options, which indicates that a new BART line under Mission or under 3rd/Geary would be the best routing on the SF side. Tying a new tube to the existing BART line gets much lower ridership than those options, as does a conventional rail crossing linking to Transbay.

    Given that all four crossing options cost roughly the same, expect to see the Mission or 3rd/Geary routing favored going forward. Out of those, I strongly suspect that the city will favor the 3rd/Geary option in order to bring rail service to the Richmond.

  • Pietro Gambadilegno

    “One errant motorist crashed into a telephone pole”
    If a driver crashes into a telephone pole, that driver is errant.

  • p_chazz

    A much less expensive alternative would be to underground power lines in the vicinity of BART tracks and to have a plan for transit agencies to react nimbly to get people where they need to go during a break in the system. Developing the ability to quickly mobilize fleets of buses ferries, of taxis, Uber and Lyft rides during an outage would cost a lot less than $13 billion.

  • mortacai

    Not necessarily. The word “errant” implies an error was committed. But that may not be the case here. Examples:

    1) The driver had a medical emergency
    2) There was a sudden mechanical failure
    3) The driver swerved to avoid a cyclist who had blown through a red light . .:-)

  • Andy Chow

    The study shows max capacity of different rail options not projected ridership.

    Independent BART line shows higher capacity because of more trains per hour, but that is also dependent on how to interface with existing BART in the East Bay.

  • crazyvag

    The BART viaduct area has clearance of at least 20 feet to provide room for railroad sidings that cross underneath. You don’t need to even underground anything, just run it below the viaduct.

  • crazyvag

    More BART is good, but tube alone doesn’t help provide a good alternative to I80 traffic. BART takes 35 mins (after you board) from Richmond to Embarcadero, which takes just as long as sitting in I80 traffic due to the detour through Berkeley and Oakland.

    You’d need a new line that provides an alternative to the I80 corridor of Emeryville, Richmond, Pinole, Hercules and maybe Vallejo. Such a line might be better covered via traditional rail and fed into the Transbay terminal where it becomes Caltrain down peninsula and puts the station to better use.

    Consider that each time Caltrain pulls into SF and switches direction, it needs to perform a brake test. A brake test cannot be performed with passengers on board. So each Caltrain turn takes 30 mins+ to allow for padding.

    Making Transbay a through station, would maintain # of trains per hour, but platforms would be shared with East Bay commuters.

  • thielges

    A contingency plan is needed regardless. Caltrain seems to have a good book of Plan B strategies, mobilizing buses for any long term outage. Hopefully BART does too. Seems like a reasonable plan for a tunnel outage would be to mobilize Muni and AC Transit to turn 2-4 lanes of the Bay Bridge into a big bus conveyor belt carrying passengers across the bay.

  • thielges

    Lets get real here, you forgot:

    4) Alien mind control
    5) Driver was rushing to disarm a nuke
    6) Pole jumped in front of car

    7) Snakes in a Car !

    Under no circumstances should drivers feel responsible for their actions. Its just an accident after all.

  • Stuart

    > The word “errant” implies an error was committed.

    If you cherry-pick your definition for maximum offense, sure. Meanwhile the first definition in most dictionaries is along the lines of: ‘errant: deviating from the regular or proper course’

    The regular or proper course of a motorist is along the road, not into the pole. That’s pretty self-evident. The value judgement is in your mind, not in the text.

    Hm, leaping to defend a driver from an imagined slight (that’s not even particularly relevant to the point of the post) by focusing on fringe circumstances that there’s no evidence were at play here. Is this by chance another RichLL/bobfuss handle?

  • mortacai

    Nobody is disputing that the vehicle deviated from its planned trajectory. But it does not follow that an error was made. There may have been other factors that caused this accident that were not the fault of the driver. Unless that is known then “errant” is not the best word to use.

  • mortacai

    No, because 1 thru 3 are plausible and 4 thru 7 are not.

    Well 7 might just be plausible, as a subset of the category of accidents where an animal or child suddenly distracts, disables or disrupts the driver causing him to lose control of the vehicle.

  • Dave Campbell

    You might mention two other transbay options: 1) Bay Bridge, and 2) ferries

  • Drew Levitt

    Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherf@cking snakes in this motherf@cking car!

  • Don’t blame me, blame Morrissey!

  • Stuart

    So that’s a yes, then?

    If so, some food for thought: maybe instead of constantly changing handles to try to get people to listen to you, you could just stop using the obnoxious rhetorical tactics that lead so many of the people who try to have discussions with you to give up and block you.

  • mortacai

    It’s a yes to a deviation from plan, and a maybe to the commission of an error. That “maybe” indicates that it is premature to ascribe blame or allege mistakes.

    I really don’t mind who you block. If you think that suppressing discussions is a viable debating strategy then that is what you should do. It really doesn’t matter to me, except that it always saddens me when people try and shut out the truth because it is painful to them.

  • mortacai

    Have you seen the TV ad for Farmers Insurance, where a gerbil or similar runs up the driver’s pant leg and causes him to hit another vehicle?

    Farmers covered it. Distractions happen.

  • Stuart

    > it always saddens me when people try and shut out the truth because it is painful to them

    I know just what you mean. There’s this one poster who relentlessly uses intellectually dishonest tricks to try to turn every discussion into a pointless argument, and when he’s called on it he deflects to a false narrative of victimization based on his opinions, rather than acknowledging the truth and trying to engage more productively.

    It is indeed quite sad.

  • mortacai

    I am not the one who is diverting from the topic here to make personal attacks on others. That would be you. I come here for vibrant discussions about transportation topics. Why does that frighten you?

  • Pietro Gambadilegno

    Vibrant discussions about transportation policy? It looks to me like you are more interested in pointless discussions of the meaning of the word errant. This whole thread that you started has nothing to do with transportation policy.

  • mortacai

    It was clear that the intent of the writer was to confer some kind of blame onto the driver, before the facts of the case were known. In the interests of objective and balanced journalism, I think a better job could be done there.

    And in fact to this moment there is no evidence provided to indicate that the driver was at fault. When that changes, we should no longer give the driver the benefit of the doubt that he is currently owed.

    The funny thing is that if we had been describing an accident involving a cyclist, I bet you’d never use a word like “errant” to describe him or her. At least, not from the outset.

  • thielges

    You have identified one of his many diversionary tactics. When a writer makes 9 solid valid points and one marginal one, focus on the single marginal point and nitpick away at it in hopes to divert attention from the other 9 solid valid points.

  • SF Guest

    Burying power lines would result in enormous costs on a smaller scale similar to building a subway. If the cables became severed the costs would also be higher with limited access.

  • mortacai

    Funnily enough, that’s exactly what people do to me as well.

  • eean

    Uber doesn’t fly over the Bay…


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