By Matthias Gafni, Contra Costa Times
In 1972, President Richard Nixon sat in a brand-new BART car and took a quick trip from San Leandro to Lake Merritt. He commented on how the train reminded him of NASA.
He wasn't far off. The consultants who designed the gleaming new rapid transit system did, in fact, use principles developed for the aerospace industry rather than tried-and-true rail standards.
Cars were lighter, more aerodynamic and controlled almost entirely by an automated computer system. As Fortune magazine put it, the move was like going straight from a DC-3 to the 747 aircraft.
But did BART's ingenuity decades ago doom it for shutdowns such as the ones that have crippled the system in recent weeks? Or is the agency's problem typical of a 44-year-old system with infrastructure nearing or exceeding its life expectancy?
Experts say it's likely a bit of both. The Space Age innovations have made it more challenging for the transit agency to maintain the BART system from the beginning. Plus, the aging system was designed to move 100,000 people per week and now carries 430,000 a day, so the loss of even a single car gets magnified with crowded commutes, delays and bus bridges.
On March 16, 50 cars suffered electrical shorts as they drove over a section of North Concord track because of a power surge that remains a mystery. The problem has led to a bus bridge, train shuttles between North Concord and Pittsburg, delays and crowded trains. BART uses almost 90 percent of its total fleet of cars on a daily basis, a high number in the industry, which leaves it little room for breakdowns.
"Back when BART was created, (the designers) were absolutely determined to establish a new product, and they intended to export it around the world," said Rod Diridon, emeritus executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute in San Jose. "They may have gotten a little ahead of themselves using new technology. Although it worked, it was extremely complex for the time period, and they never did export the equipment because it was so difficult for other countries to install and maintain."
Rather than stick to the standard rail track width of 4 feet, 8.5 inches, BART engineers debuted a 5-foot, 6-inch width track, a gauge that remains to this day almost exclusive to the system. Industry experts say the unique track width necessitates custom-made wheel sets, brake assemblies and track repair vehicles. The agency also debuted a flat-edge rail, while other systems tilt slightly inward. That BART design requires more maintenance and is noisier, experts say.
Those one-of-a-kind systems lead to a dearth of readily available replacement parts. Maintenance crews often scavenge parts from old, out-of-service cars to avoid lengthy waits for orders to come in; sometimes mechanics are forced to manufacture the equipment themselves.
Crews faced that familiar challenge when the latest electrical surges fried some $1,000 thyristors, rare propulsion control parts, which usually take 22 weeks to order. BART crews have cannibalized other cars and found a faster supplier, but the part will be slightly different due to the rush job.
While an extreme example, this ingenuity is common in how BART has learned to deal with its unique system.
Spokesman Jim Allison said the cars were designed to use aluminum wheels with steel tires to reduce weight and noise, but that design makes them harder to replace.
BART's unique 1,000-volt traction power system also can't be repaired or replaced with off-the-shelf technology.
"Increased complexity inherently increases the probability of breakdowns; it requires more components and more controls," Allison said. "In plain language, there are more things that can go wrong."
In October, two months before electrical surges on the Oakland side of the Transbay Tube fried 80 cars, BART touted its resourceful maintenance crew in a news release and video. The agency called them "MacGyver-like mechanics and imaginative engineers" that had to work on a unique, old system with cars lighter than other transit systems that also require higher top speeds, faster acceleration and deceleration, and higher voltage in their electronic instruments.
In January, BART mechanic Charles Chew told KQED how just fixing an electrical switch in the air conditioning unit of a car was so complex it took four to six hours.
David Hardt, BART's chief mechanical officer, told the station some parts are not available from suppliers anymore, so he logs on to eBay or buys newer parts and tweaks them to fit.
"Imagine a computer produced in 1972," he said. "No one is supporting that old equipment any longer, but those same microprocessors are what we have controlling our logic systems."
David Schonbrunn, president of TRANSDEF, a nonprofit environmental organization created by Bay Area transit activists, said BART's unique design has cost taxpayers.
"When you have a unique product you're at the mercy of suppliers," he said. "As a result, BART maintenance is incredibly expensive."
BART Director Nick Josefowitz said BART's train control system, once a technological wonder, is responsible for more than a quarter of all delays. The system is notorious for its "ghost trains," where the computer freezes train movement because it erroneously believes another train is in the area.
At present, the BART system is heading toward a major overhaul. The entire fleet of cars is being replaced. And a $3.5 billion bond is proposed for November's ballot. The money would be used to improve the guts of the system, including more than $1 billion dedicated for replacing the electrical system.
Josefowitz said it makes no sense to dwell on design decisions made a half-century ago.
"I think we need to use what we have today and build off that, rather than fantasize what could have been done in the past," he said. "The BART system was state of the art when it was built, and now it's technologically obsolete and coming to the end of its useful life."
©2016 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.