Editorial: Impressions of BART’s New Line to Antioch

A forced transfer, stations built between screaming traffic lanes--what was the point of this extension?

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A little over a week ago, BART held a community ribbon-cutting celebration for its new ten-mile, two-station extension from the end of the Pittsburg/Bay Point line to Antioch. Unfortunately, they provided no service to the ribbon-cutting celebration, so it took a little while for Streetsblog to try it out.

And that was, perhaps, symbolic of everything about this line. Don’t drive a car? Sorry bud, but this train isn’t for you.

[CORRECTION/Update: Apparently there was a bus shuttle to the celebration, which BART mentioned in a tweet. The official press release, however, only said there would be no BART service to the event]

Yes, there are other BART stations in the centers of freeways, but these new stations are particularly bad–there’s no buffer, height difference, or sound walls between the platform and the station, just a chain link fence. The roar of traffic is incredible and absolutely withering if you have a long wait for a train.

Waiting for the connection was deafening and noxious.
Waiting for the connection was deafening and noxious.

The transfer station between the old BART and the new is, well, weird. It isn’t at the Pittsburg/Bay Point station–it’s at an entirely new transfer-only station just to the east. Technically, it’s a third new station on the line, except that there is no way in or out for passengers, except by emergency exit. Want to get a coffee before you make your connection from BART to the new eBART? No can do. Need to pee after traveling two hours from, say, San Bruno to your transfer point at Pittsburgh? No restrooms. And none on the trains either.

The new diesel-powered light rail trains themselves are nice enough: quiet and smooth, with decent acceleration. There was a conspicuous absence of bike storage–bikes are permitted in the train, but the only obvious place to store one is in the wheelchair area.

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The interior of the train.

Fortunately, there were only about fifteen or twenty people on the train, and no wheelchairs, so that wasn’t a problem this time.

What about the station areas, once you climb out of the freeway station pits? My expectations for East Contra Costa urban planning, bike infra, and walkability were not high, and I got pretty much what I expected. I explored around the Pittsburg Center station, because, well, it’s supposed to be a center.

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This is what you see upon exiting the Pittsburg Center Station.

That sign, above, is on Railroad Avenue and it’s pretty much the first thing one sees upon emerging from the Pittsburg Center station, which, it turns out, is a mile from the actual center of town.

Old downtown Pittsburg
Old downtown Pittsburg

Downtown Pittsburg is quite charming, once you get there. And that’s not surprising, as it is an old railroad-stop town. You have to cross two sets of railroad tracks to get there from BART. One appears to be lightly used by freight trains. The other is used by freight and Amtrak (a San Joaquin train blew by while I was there), although no trains stop anymore.

One of two rail lines that parrallel the eBART alignment.
One of the old tracks that parallel the eBART alignment.
Pittsburg's old train depot.
Pittsburg’s old train depot.

There’s also the remains of an old train station.

It turns out BART originally favored using the old tracks for what would become eBART, but apparently negotiations with Union Pacific, which owns the rights of way, broke down in 2007. BART blamed Union Pacific. [UPDATED 6/7] But it should be noted that Marin and Sonoma run freights and the SMART train on the same tracks. And Denver’s transit agency worked out accommodations with Union Pacific to get its transit service underway.

BART opted to use diesel-powered light rail for the extension, which cost $525 million and was sixty percent less expensive than conventional BART, since there’s no third-rail electrification–it’s also not the same gauge and can’t share tracks with the rest of the BART system (thus the forced transfer). The extension was ultimately built as part of a billion-dollar widening of State Route 4, with the tracks added to the median of the freeway. Contrast that with Marin’s SMART train, a diesel-powered multiple unit train that is technically similar, albeit wider: that cost about $400 million to get into service, and it’s over forty miles long (albeit with less frequent service and single-track segments). SMART also has spaces for bikes, by the way.

Map from MTC
The eBART extension is the portion on the upper right of MTC’s map.

It seems as if eBART started out as an idea consistent with the concept of European-style Regional Rail–get the branch lines onto existing ROWs, where they can be extended out into far-flung suburbs for less money than it would cost to create a whole new alignment. But when the agency gave up on its negotiations with Union Pacific, eBART became little more than a coat of greenwash for a freeway widening project. Actually, that’s basically how the project was sold, with BART proclaiming that it will carry “…as many people as an additional lane on Highway 4.”

But a freeway widening, even if you wedge a train into it, doesn’t solve traffic tie-ups. Even in cities with truly comprehensive transit systems, traffic is miserable. Try renting a car and driving around New York, Paris, or Tokyo. Trains provide an alternative to traffic, not a solution to it.

Fortunately, BART recently managed to avoid yet another wasteful freeway widening extension when the proposed Livermore extension got voted down by a more savvy board (although it seems to be resurfacing, again with a plan that still bypasses downtown Livermore). Let’s hope today’s elections in San Francisco and elsewhere bring in even more politicians who understand sound transit planning.

Because transit, even in the suburbs, actually has to take people places besides freeway medians, or it’s not worth building them in the first place.

eBART. Photo: BART
eBART. Photo: BART
  • John French

    Why!? Why would they not simply have the eBART train run 8 minutes later?

  • neroden

    BART could easily have built separate tracks in the UP ROW — have you looked at how wide it is? UP has one or two tracks, and there’s room for about 10.

    Some of that space is occupied by oil pipelines, which may have been the actual problem. Look at the railroad crossing over Harbor Street in Pittsburg. That’s a lot of pipelines. You don’t want to build a railroad directly over a pipeline. 🙁

  • neroden

    If I remember correctly, Pittsbug wanted BART service downtown, at the traditional Southern Pacific station location.

  • neroden

    Azmordean: we actually have studies on this, and you’re simply wrong. It turns out the percentage of people who want to live in suburban sprawl is much lower than the percentage who actually *do* live in suburban sprawl. Meanwhile, the percentage who want to live in urban downtowns is much higher than the percentage who actually *do* live in urban downtowns.

    This is largely due to zoning.

    (The third, least common, preference is for true rural living, and again the percentage who want to live rural is higher than the percentage who actually do… but this is due to lack of jobs in rural areas. They settle for suburban because they can get paid.)

    What I’m saying is: the hearts and minds have already changed. What has not changed are the zoning codes. Only about half of Americans have the “suburban dream” now, but WAY more than half of Americans are actually living in suburbia, because we don’t have enough urban housing for the ones who want to live urban. 🙁

  • The middle of the freeway had the right of way already. I suppose they could turn the Iron Horse Trail – a former railway line at that – into a BART route, but I suspect nearby residents would revolt.

  • The point of the extension was a sop to East Contra Costa County residents, where the older residents have been paying BART taxes for nearly six decades without service anywhere near them, and where the new development and population has grown. However, East Contra Costa got a booby prize.

  • “Every swamp is sacred”–no more Foster Cities
    “Every hill is sacred”–no more Daly Cities

    People commuting all the way into the Bay Area from Brentwood and vicinity, and paving over farmland–just fine with the “Environmentalists”.

    If the “Environmentalists” want to know where all the sprawl came from, they should look in the mirror.

  • Michael Darmousseh

    Automated cars will reduce the need for parking lots, and the location of the trains wont matter. In fact, automated cars will likely kill bart itself.

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