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BART Derailment Jams Service on New Year’s Day

It was an inauspicious start to the new year for transit, but it's important to maintain perspective on safety. That said, BART has some serious work to do when it comes to communications and managing incidents

Selfie of Bike East Bay’s Robert Prinz evacuating a derailed BART train on New Year’s Day.

Note: GJEL Accident Attorneys regularly sponsors coverage on Streetsblog San Francisco and Streetsblog California. Unless noted in the story, GJEL Accident Attorneys is not consulted for the content or editorial direction of the sponsored content.

A BART train partially derailed at an interlocking between the Orinda and Lafayette stations shortly after 9 a.m. on Monday. From a BART release on the incident:

The incident train was an 8-car Antioch bound train. Two cars derailed. There was smoke and flames. All riders were safely evacuated. There were no major injuries, though nine people were transported to area hospitals for evaluation. The Orinda Fire Department responded and extinguished the flames.

The train was put back on the tracks and moved to the yard, and service on the yellow line has now returned to normal, according to BART. An investigation is underway into what caused the incident.

True to form, the story was reported nationally. A derailed train with fire and smoke makes a good photo and gets clicks. Normally, Streetblog would just let the mainstream press do its thing, at least until the exact reason for the derailment is identified. However, it turned out a prominent Bay Area bike advocate was on board the train to remind everyone of the imbalance in the way transportation crashes are covered.

"Everybody got off okay, emergency response on site. This is what I get the one time I try biking Mount Diablo on New Year’s Day," wrote Bike East Bay's Robert Prinz in a tweet about the incident. Prinz didn't even know the train had derailed or that there was a fire until passengers fled from the affected cars. Either way, he remains committed to using transit as a primary way of getting around.

"I think the best angle is to remind folks that much more harmful car crashes happen locally on a daily basis but don’t get news copters or front page headlines," wrote Prinz in an email to Streetsblog. "When it comes to transportation our 'devil you know' attitude towards massive driving dangers is a vast double standard which ends up scaring people away from significantly safer transit/bike/walk options."

As Streetsblog has covered previously, on a per-mile basis, a person is up to thirty times more likely to die traveling by car than by transit, depending on type. And, yes, that includes taking crime into account.

"A bigger threat to my life today were all the terrible drivers in Tilden Park on my bike ride back home," added Prinz.

All of that said, Prinz was critical of BART's communications about the incident. "After the initial stop we were only given a vague message on the PA once about a 'manual trackway reset' or something. The operator walked all the way to the other end of the train at one point but didn’t say anything to us."

Note the smoke in the distance. Photo: Robert Prinz

"We only learned about the fire once passengers from the front of the train started running through our middle car to the back and letting everyone know," wrote Prinz.

"We’re working to gather and compile more detailed information about the incident," a BART representative told Streetsblog, adding that "... a train operator is responsible for the riders’ safety."

Clearly, BART has to figure out why the train derailed. But it also has to figure out why communications were so poor and why the operator didn't do more (or anything?) to look after the passengers. Streetsblog notes that the main reason BART staff gives for why it can't fully automate the system (or even parts of the system) is because the trains need an operator for safety in an emergency.

As Prinz explained on Twitter, the calm and helpful disposition of the other passengers saved the day. "The other passengers were amazing, helping each other out and even assisting me with my bike," he wrote.

An earlier version of this story characterized the derailment as 'minor.' This was intended to further counter the narrative of major news orgs, which continually amplify any transit problem while all-but ignoring the daily carnage caused by automobiles. The derailment itself, in isolation, was not 'minor,' in the sense that it was dumb luck nobody was seriously injured or killed. Therefore, Streetsblog opted to cut that word.

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