Screen Doors Coming to Oakland BART Station

Could this be the first step towards driverless trains?

The Paris line 14 platform screen doors. These trains also have no on-board operator. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The Paris line 14 platform screen doors. These trains also have no on-board operator. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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As part of Measure RR and its $3.5 billion investments in expanding capacity, BART is planning to test out platform “screen doors” at the 12th Street BART Station. Screen doors, as seen in the photo above of the Paris Metro, are a set of safety doors, placed along the edge of the platform, intended to prevent transit riders from getting onto the tracks. BART is allotting $3 million of Measure RR money to this pilot.

“We’re in the early stages of our platform edge door project,” Chris Filippi, a spokesman for BART, explained in an email to Streetsblog. “This is an ambitious project for BART, as no transit system in North America has platform edge doors despite having similar crowding challenges as those faced by BART.”

Notice the two qualifiers of “similar crowding challenges” and “in North America.” There are transit systems in North America that have screen doors, but they’re confined to airport circulation trains. And in Europe, Asia, and South America, there are many examples of metro systems with screen doors.

BART is looking at screen doors as a long-term way to deal with overcrowding at Embarcadero and Montgomery stations. The idea is with the screen doors more people can squish onto the platform without the risk of someone falling onto the tracks. They also help keep litter off the tracks–which can damage equipment and cause delays.

But other transit systems that use screen doors almost always do it because there’s no operator at the front of the train. It’s hard to imagine that screen doors, if they succeed, wouldn’t lead to serious calls for BART to go driverless too, at least on some lines for part of the day.

Two weeks ago at BART’s annual board workshop in Walnut Creek, directors Debora Allen and Nick Josefowitz both wanted assurances that the new train control system that BART is currently planning will allow trains to run autonomously, without onboard operators, if management decides to abandon its current one-operator-on-each-train policy in the future. (The ‘Train Control Modernization’ plan is also part of Measure RR and should increase the capacity of BART by 25 percent).

The question was met with some pushback from BART operations and staff.

“My two cents… I just don’t see it,” said Paul Oversier, Assistant General Manager for Operations for BART, when asked about fully automating BART. “We are not Vancouver, probably the most heavily used driverless system in the world… but they don’t run ten-car trains with as many as 2,000 people on them.”

No, the Bay Area is not Vancouver. But the Vancouver Skytrain, which has been operating since 1985, carries 488,900 per day. BART carries 423,395. And Skytrain has only about 50 miles of track. BART has twice that much. In other words, automation means you can carry more people with shorter, more frequent trains, on less track mileage.

Oversier’s premise seems to be that onboard operators are needed when trains are over a certain length, which BART certainly would still require to meet demand during rush hour in the core of its system. With a longer train, it’s probably important to have someone on board looking out for any passengers that might have fallen between the train and the platform. (Skytrain uses short trains and has no screen doors). He also made the argument that an onboard operator is like a cop or a fireman, who doesn’t do much most of the time but becomes essential in an emergency.

But Paris, with a Metro system that carries 4.16 million daily riders, uses long, BART-like heavy-rail trains–and they have platform screen doors to guard against passengers falling between trains and the platforms. The Line 14 and Line 1 are automated and all of the new lines under construction (Paris is in the middle of a huge transit expansion) will be without drivers. And in case BART is afraid its system is too old to retrofit with automation, the Paris Line 1 originally opened in 1900. As to passenger safety, the trains are continually monitored, and there are people available to respond in an emergency–they’re just not always riding on the trains themselves.

There are many other big city transit systems around the world that are fully automated. The largest one is in Singapore–it carries over 3 million daily riders. In all these cases, train automation allows operators to maintain very frequent headways–even off-peak and on weekends. BART, on the other hand, has suffered from sliding off-peak ridership because it runs trains only every 20 minutes at night and on weekends; with operators on every train, it’s just too expensive to increase service frequencies.

The Singapore Metro also has platform screen doors... and no drivers. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The Singapore Metro also has platform screen doors… and no drivers. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, the screen door project is in the earliest phases; BART won’t even give a time frame for its implementation. “Currently the BART pilot is in the stage of determining feasibility and advancing design for a pilot project. We are hoping to wrap up the design process in the next 18-20 months,” said Filippi. After that, BART will put out requests for proposal.

“If we determine the project is feasible, the platform edge doors for the pilot would likely be built on one of the platforms on only one side at our 12th Street Station in downtown Oakland. Once in place, we want to verify how the doors interact with our new (three-door) and legacy (two-door) cars as well as with our current and future train control systems. We further want to study how BART riders interact with the doors and how they function in an underground station environment that isn’t as congested as our downtown San Francisco stations,” added Filippi.

But if it works smoothly and BART is able to roll out platform screen doors in the downtown San Francisco stations, it’s going to become increasingly difficult to claim that BART can’t be made safe without a human operator on every train, on every line, on every run.

  • SFnative74

    Rather than an operator on each train, I’d rather see a police officer strolling along each train.

  • Michael Mathews

    If they had driverless trains that didn’t need operator breaks, they could run a Millbrae SFO shuttle much more economically. That is such a stupid hassle for passengers to deal with.

  • mx

    I mean, if we took the $3 million spent just on this pilot alone, we could pay for something like 50,000 person-hours worth of train operators.

  • xplosneer

    Way too slow. Way way way too slow.

  • Sean

    Why Oakland 12th St? What these doors are really needed for is for express trains. Currently the Pleasant Hill Ltd can only go 35mph when expressing through Rockridge-Walnut Creek due to a self imposed speed limit for safety. With screen doors, they could scream through there at 80mph like Caltrain. With more and more trains at the end of the line getting fuller faster, they need to express to improve cycle times.

  • Sean

    That would be better served via a frequent SamTrans bus that can directly serve the all terminals. San Bruno BART to Millbrae TC via San Bruno Caltrain/Terminals.

  • david vartanoff

    The solution to crowding at Embarcadero and Montgomery is more trains per hour, and better station ingress/egress.
    At Civic Center, the bars preventing easy transfer to/from Muni need to go, and at Powell through Embarcadero, new stairs/escalators to speed transfers need to be added.

  • RichardC

    Unfortunately, BART only operates it’s existing automated line (the Oakland Airport Connector) on 20 minute headways late at night – I ended up taking a Lyft home the other night because taking BART would have required a total of 35 minutes waiting for trains. So automated lines should enable more frequent service, but certainly don’t guarantee it.

  • Big difference between installing platform screen doors at two heavily used stations to improve flow/increase safety than doing it so the future fleet becomes driverless. Also, given that it’s going to take 2 years to finalize a design before even being sent out for RFPs says a lot about wasting funds.
    BART needs to focus its attention on installing canopies at as many stations as possible to reduce the need for constant repairs and replacement of its escalators. After being back in operation for only a couple weeks after a 3 month “repair”, the street escalator at 2nd/Market is out of service once again.

  • p_chazz

    Yes! Bring on driverless trains so we can kiss the overpaid train operators and their union good bye once and for all!

  • Sean

    LA Metro is spending enormous amounts on extra police, but I am not sure it is the best use of funds. They tend to travel in big packs to have a presence at places that are already pretty safe, like LAUPT. I doubt they are riding many buses through Compton.

  • I’d settle for strolling along platforms and in stations. How many times do we hear “Muni Metro police respond to incident at Castro St. Station” which means there aren’t any officers around. It’s not like SF has a ton of stations to patrol.

  • City Resident

    As to the frequent maintenance needs of BART’s escalators, motion-activated escalators would help. Motion-activated escalators, which slow to a crawl or stop when no one needs them, have less wear and tear and less frequent need for repair. The SFMTA is installing such escalators at many Muni Metro stations. (Per the SFMTA: “Sleep mode will slow the escalator down when experiencing a decrease of usage. This feature saves energy and reduces wear on the equipment.”) Don’t know if BART is making use of such devices.

  • Minimal improvement at best. What I’m talking about is the escalators constantly getting beaten up by the elements. When I lived in DC in the 90s, WMATA started a canopy program to cover its escalators that were exposed 24/7 to the ravages of the weather. No reason why similar protection can’t be installed here to help reduce wear/tear.

  • More trains and more subway lines. Come on…for a city of over 800,000 (not including the millions reached by the entire BART system) there are just a handful of stations. DC, of similar size, has 5 times the number of stations on 5 different subway lines. One can argue that Muni rail is comparable, but the DC Metro has much higher capacity than the SF streetcars. Solution is to invest heavily in infrastructure.

  • Patrick Devine

    I just take Lyft now from Millbrae. The shuttle bus pre-BART used to be pretty handy, but it’s sad that BART always seems to make everything worse.

  • Either this wasn’t spell-checked or the author doesn’t respect Hispanics. Because “Embarcareo” isn’t a word. It’s the most important station in San Francisco and you can’t manage to get the name right? And you’re what website?

  • crazyvag

    After Oakland, next step would be to install platform screen doors at a single platform in Millbrae and SFO and bring back the shuttle to run as driverless trial at 5-10 minute intervals.

  • crazyvag

    New train control system can do that. Have you noticed how close Muni trains can come to one another and how second train starts moving shortly after one in front starts accelerating? That’s what new Bart system can bring. London Tube can run 36 trains per hour compared to Barts 24. Tube lines don’t branch as much which helps them achieve such high density, but to anyone who has looked down the track towards Montgomery as train is leaving embarcadero can agree that tighter spacing is feasible.

  • keenplanner

    Why so long to “finalize a design” when there are successful systems operating all over the world?