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Hey Area: How the width of BART tracks affects your commute

Angela Johnston
The BART repair garage in Richmond

This story originally aired on July 5, 2016 and most recently aired in the October 2, 2023 episode of Crosscurrents.

You may have noticed lately that all the BART trains running are the newer, cleaner ones and that’s because last month, BART retired the last of its Legacy Trains.

The change is one of many that BART has had in the works in recent years, including expanding its service across the region. The big extension they’re currently working on is the one that would take BART all the way down to San Jose. But, as BART expands, the trips are not always as straightforward as they could be. Like riding to Antioch from downtown San Francisco for example. When commuters get to Pittsburg, they have to get out, and transfer to another BART train for the last ten miles.

That’s because the extension is on standard gauge tracks. And the rest of BART has wider tracks and cars that are made to fit them. It makes traditional BART cars and tracks incompatible with, not only that extension, but most other transit systems too, like Caltrain and Amtrak.

Listener David Wright noticed the difference, and asked “Why are BART tracks a different gauge from all other train tracks?”

Looking for answers

The first place I go looking for answers was BART’S Richmond repair garage. The garage is the place where BART trains come for their usual checkups — air conditioning systems are getting fixed, train connectors are getting tightened

There, I meet Jim Allison, the Media spokesperson for BART. He takes me outside to look at some BART tracks.

“You can see right here the gauge of the track and how wide it is,” Allison says. “If we could magically hover above, we could go over there to the Amtrak track and you would see the difference in terms of the width.”

BART tracks are five feet and six inches wide. Standard tracks, like Caltrain and MUNI, Amtrak, and almost every other train in the world, are just four feet eight and a half inches wide — close to a foot narrower.

Why? Allison says to understand, we have to understand the original vision for BART.

A luxurious, smooth ride

“The concept behind BART was to provide an entirely new form of transportation for the Bay Area,” Allison says. “One that would be luxurious enough to get people out of their cars. It was supposed to be like airline travel back when airline travel was glamorous.”

BART actually uses aerospace technology, and the cars are made out of aluminum rather than steel, which made them around 80,000 pounds lighter than most other US train cars. Allison says that’s one possible answer behind BART’s use of a wider gauge.

“It was built to be a more stable ride, to be a smoother ride,” he says.

The original plan was to have BART go across the Golden Gate Bridge in high winds on a second deck. It didn’t happen, but Allison says the engineers thought they still needed all the stability a wider gauge could give them.

Complete control

Allison says there’s a second reason for the wide gauge. BART wanted a closed system that they completely controlled.

“If Union Pacific owns the tracks, and they have an important freight train coming through, they might delay an Amtrak train. And [passengers] just have to deal with that, sit there and wait. BART, they didn’t want that,” he says.

Who do we thank or blame?

So who do we thank or blame for this? Allison doesn’t know, but tells me who might––Mike Healy, the former chief spokesperson for BART. He was there when the very first BART train made its way around the Bay on September 11, 1972.

“We had journalists from all over the world coming to view this brand new transit system, which was the first transit system to be built in the US in almost 60 years,” Healy tells me.

I ask if he knows who made the decision. He says he’s not sure anybody alive today would know the answer.

“Most of the people that were involved had passed on since those days,” he says.

He does show me the original 1962 BART composite report, a document presented to the BART Board of Supervisors before Bay Area residents voted on the original BART bond. On it are the names Walter S. Douglas, Ralph A. Tudor, and John Kiely. They were the chief engineers for Parsons Brinckerhoff Tudor and Bechtel, the joint venture of engineering firms who drew up that first vision for BART.

“I don’t think anybody at BART, or anyone of the original designers ever regretted using the wider gauge,” Healy says.

Unfortunately, I can’t ask them if they agree. My research stopped at their obituaries. But their early decision to approve a wide gauge has some other people frustrated.

Some long lasting problems

“I think the number one problem is about interoperability,” says Ratna Amin, the Transportation Policy Director at SPUR. “We can’t move trains from one kind of track onto the BART tracks. You could have more systems running on the same set of tracks”

She says that decision Jim Allison mentioned, to keep BART tracks totally independent, and wide has had long lasting consequences.

“Today you have BART across the Bay and no standard rail and no freight rail,” Amin says. “It didn’t have to be that way, they could’ve been something that is shared.”

If we could run other trains on BART tracks or vice versa, you could go to the MacArthur station, for example, and catch a few different types of rail—not just BART.

“There would be more of an emphasis on stations and service, fast service, slow service, from here to there,” Amin says.

Another big problem caused by BART? It’s really expensive to fix because every part must be custom made.

“What happens with technology is if you don’t have a big market, then there's no innovation. There's no economies of scale and the market becomes very, very small,” Amin says.

Like Healy, Amin didn’t know who was in the room when the decision to use wide gauge was made. She did put me in touch with one last person she thought could help––the Honorable Rod Diridon, the executive director of San Jose State’s Mineta Transportation institute.

Credit Angela Johnston
A map of projected BART routes from the 50s.

Looking back even farther

Diridon’s office is a transportation artifact goldmine. There are model high speed rail trains in glass cases, a giant brass train bell the door, and posters of when San Jose’s Diridon Station was named after him.

He shows me an even earlier BART document, the original plan. It’s huge, taking up a quarter of the table. We have to use both our hands to flip through the pages, as we look for mentions of wide gauge and the names associated with that decision.

We see maps of the projected route. And remember that second deck on the Golden Gate Bridge? Well, we find a map that shows a picture of four potential Bay crossings. Finally, we come to a section that looks promising.

On page 79, the plan says, “Each of the two trucks supporting a car has four rolled steel wheels...mounted at standard gauge at four feet and eight and a half inches. Standard gauge.”

“It all could have been different,” I tell Diridon.

A future investment

In the future, it could be different. Diridon says it’s time for another big push for new transit in the Bay Area. And one solution could be laying down new track to fit standard gauge trains.

“That's multi-tens of billions dollars worth of cost. But it needs to be done sooner than later,” Diridon says.

He says in hindsight, it looks like BART focused so much on being the transit system of the future, it got itself stuck in the past.

“It was so far ahead of everything else for the time that potential buyers of the system around the world couldn't figure out a way to adapt it to their use. So now we have one of a kind, you might say, it's a dinosaur.”

Dinosaur or not, BART’s Jim Allison is focused on keeping the trains he has up and running.

“It would be wonderful to take the knowledge that we have today and apply it back in time, but that's not the reality,” Allison says.

But if he could go back in time?

“If I were in the planning room when BART was being drawn up on the blue prints. And I had my white, short-sleeved shirt on and I was smoking a camel cigarette…I would probably want have to have a nice stereo system so that our trains could blast some muzak and calm people down.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post described incorrectly the difference in weight of aluminum and steel train cars. A BART car weighs about 80,000 pounds lighter than a typical steel train car; not 80,000 tons. The audio version has not been updated yet. 

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