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What it takes to keep BART rolling

Photo by Casey Miner

You might think BART stations would be quiet at 2am. The platforms are empty, no trains rushing through. But they’re not quiet. In fact, the noise is deafening.

Huge machines run back and forth on long stretches of track, grinding down rails and carrying new ones. Crews deep in the tunnels take huge saws to pieces of metal, and cranes drop other pieces on the ground.

Don Emmons was formerly BART’s assistant superintendent for ways and facilities. He's retired now but used to keep track of everything going on in the system, during the day and after hours. He drove me around to a few stations one morning to show me what goes on after the gates close.

“Yeah, so right now the trains are all heading out to their final destinations of rest,” says Emmons.

After 37 years with the agency, Emmons doesn’t talk about the train system the way you or I would. Instead, he speaks fluent BART.

“So this is an M line blanket coming down right now,” says Emmons.

Here’s the translation: The M line is the section of BART that runs from West Oakland all the way through San Francisco, down to Millbrae. A blanket is a section where they’ve powered down the rails, after the last trains pass through.

Once you get through the jargon, Emmons’ point is pretty simple: maintenance crews need a safe area to do work, and they can’t have it until after the trains are gone.

“What happens is, the time frames they have to do work in get shorter and shorter the further out you go,” says Emmons.

This is the crux of BART’s maintenance issue. There are more than 200 miles of track to keep up, and only a handful of yards where heavy machinery can be stored. Upkeep includes everything from physically inspecting train cars to replacing long sections of track. For a big job like that, it can take more than an hour just for the crews to get set up. Depending on where they need to go, they might not even start working until 1:45am. Meanwhile, the first morning trains start running at 4am. So workers have to be completely cleared out before that.

“It’s sort of like ready, set, go,” says Paul Oversier, BART’s assistant general manager of operations. “So we have people, and vehicles, and trucks, and pickup trucks at the standby at those locations, waiting for the last train of the night to pass by. We drop the power, put all the other safety measures in place, and away they go.”

The tunnels are closed for 13 hours each week. Oversier and Emmons both say it’s not enough.

“Stuff goes wrong every day,” admits Oversier.

Multiple times every day. The system is 40 years old. A lot of parts have been replaced over time, but a lot haven’t. And when they do need replacement, they’re not always easy to find.

“We have to go truly looking at eBay, in some cases, to find certain parts that otherwise just aren't manufactured or on the market anymore,” says Oversier.

For example, some electrical components are hard to find, as are some parts of BART’s fare collection equipment. Oversier says shopping on eBay isn’t common. If they need a lot of a certain part, they’ll build it themselves, or order it from one of just a few suppliers around the country. 

“So when these things reach the end of their useful life, it doesn’t take a heroic effort, doing crazy things in the aftermarket to try and find parts,” says Oversier.

BART workers don’t just do maintenance at night. They’re constantly monitoring different parts of the system.

“Here between Civic Center and 24th Street, we call it the rainforest,” says Don Emmons. “It’s almost like it’s raining all the time, with the rain from the underground streams.”

When we arrive at the 24th Street station around 2:30am, a crew is already well into the process of replacing a line of broken rail.

Emmons says normally they’d save a rail replacement for the weekend, when they’ve got a few extra hours to work. But they found this broken one on an inspection, and they have to fix it before more trains can run.

If they’re lucky, the rail maintenance crew will finish their work before the first morning trains are due to come through. If not, those trains, and passengers, will have to wait.

Click the audio player to listen to the story. 

This story originally aired December 5, 2011.