When BART first carried passengers, the country was sending astronauts to the moon. The Apollo-era trains were symbols of a generation barreling toward a space-age future complete with carpeted floors and a seat promised to every passenger.
That was 1972, when BART was state of the art. But half a century later, as the agency celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, many of those same silver-and-blue trains are still chugging through the Bay Area. And keeping them running — even in the country’s technology capital — requires a special breed of ingenuity.
BART mechanics rely on Frankensteined laptops operating with Windows 98, train yard scraps and vintage microchips to keep Bay Area commuters on the rails.
“We have literally started with a picture and scoured different manufacturers and eBay looking for an oddball part,” said John Allen, a mechanic who specializes in breathing new life into broken down BART trains. When Car 372 caught fire in Orinda in 2013, his team created an entirely new system and built their own tools to replace the floor. “Sometimes we don’t even know what the name of the part is.”
To understand why BART upkeep is so complicated, take a look back to the founders. They shunned heavy steel trains and old-school signaling technology and instead hired an aerospace company to build a train fleet that would serve as a new model for public transit. The result? All-electric trains with sleek aluminum bodies and wide windows, underpinned by nearly autonomous operations. The price tag for BART’s original 450 cars: $160 million.
“BART was envisioned as a renaissance system,” said Mike Healy, the agency’s longtime spokesperson and BART historian. In 1972, it “was sort of the new kid on the block.”
But much of the hardware quickly went out of date. Even as Silicon Valley sprouted next door, the trains remained tethered to a safe but arcane automated train control system that depended on DOS — a computer operating system now relegated to the dustbin of history — for vital operations. BART inspired train networks in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, yet its specific mechanics were never widely replicated.
Today, the transit system is an outlier, with everything from wheels to windows crying out for custom-built attention.
“The biggest stumbling block is coming up with parts that they don’t make anymore,” said Mark Wing, a mechanic who oversees maintenance on the entire train, spanning electrical propulsion equipment to busted seats.
Which parts are not made any more? “Pretty much everything,” he said.
When a BART car runs into trouble, Shawn Stange steps back in time. He pops open a circa-2000 IBM Thinkpad running Windows 98 and opens a portal into the train’s brain — the Automated Train Control system — through the DOS computer language.
Much as if he were conducting a vehicle diagnostic test, Stange uses the software as a mechanic’s roadmap. “This stuff was written so long ago. So you have to take Windows 10 and open up a virtual Windows 98 box and then run the (DOS) program to download the log files,” he said. “It’s primitive.”
Stacks of vintage laptop carcasses are common at BART warehouses. The train software is so old it won’t work on modern computers.
“I was in an engineering office, and I bet he had 40 of them sitting on the floor stacked up,” said Allen. “Rob this part and rob that part to keep one laptop going. You see that here all the time.”
Perhaps the most illustrative symbol of BART’s go-it-alone approach is its iconic 1970s lead cars, which have a dedicated fan base among transit design aficionados. The sloped nose was built for a futuristic effect but had little practical purpose and even prevented the trains from switching interchangeably with flat-faced vehicles. Irrespective of functionality, the shape became BART’s “identity,” said Healy.
Today, 56 of the original lead cars, known as A cars, are still in operation, BART spokesperson Jim Allison said. Their mechanical innards were replaced during a mid-life rebuilding of the legacy fleet starting in the late 1990s, but the same pointed nose greets tens of thousands of passengers every day. Another 341 of the trailing “B Cars” from the 1970s are still in use along with 60 “C cars,” which were built in the 1980s.
In June, the family of legacy lead cars became just a little smaller. Car 1204 derailed and it now lives at the Concord maintenance yard, scorching under the most recent heat wave. “It’ll go to Schnitzer Steel in Oakland and get crushed,” said Allison.
But before Car 1204 meets the trash compactor, mechanics picked through the train’s bones in recent weeks. They pulled headlight sockets and popped out its hard-to-replicate conductor windows to preserve parts.
“The window is kind of bowed out, like a bubble,” said Scott Fitzgerald, a manager at the Concord yard, adding that they have just one spare left. “I don’t know how many attempts the glassmaker has tried to get that arc correctly.”
One of the first people to see BART’s space-age trains running through the Bay Area was Mekela Edwards. On Sept. 11, 1972, she was a toddler slung over her mother Theresa’s shoulder when the pair became the system’s first paying customers. “Sometimes I introduce myself as BART’s first baby,” said Edwards, who is now a teacher in Palo Alto.
For her, the trains always had an air of discovery on trips from Oakland to San Francisco. But Edward’s connection to BART also parallels many passengers’ love-hate relationship with the system as the dated trains struggle with cleanliness, delays and notoriously failing air conditioners.
And as she grew older, her frustration with BART sometimes bubbled over into angry social media posts, when the crowded old cars morphed into saunas. “I just could not believe it was so hot on the train,” she said, recounting a trip in 2016. “And so I was tweeting, ‘do something about this.’”
BART is doing something. Its old trains are being slowly phased out. Most will be sent to the junkyards in the next two years, and a handful will be repurposed for, among other things, a local beer garden, video-game arcade, and firefighter training. The Western Railway Museum in Solano County is also fundraising to save historic BART cars for a new exhibit.
Taking their place will be the $2.6 billion “Fleet of the Future,” which already makes up nearly a third of the trains. The cars have cooler cabins LCD map screens and yellow and blue seats. Along with a revamped train control system, the new fleet is meant to finally push BART into the 21st century, even as its initial rollout is hampered by software glitches.
Finding replacement parts won’t be a problem and DOS is no longer necessary for Allen and his crew, but it will still be bittersweet to say goodbye to trains that they have lovingly kept alive.
“There is a part of me that definitely has a little tear in my eye,” said Allen, who has dedicated the past 16 years to BART repairs. “I think we could probably rebuild the fleet again and keep it going . . . but you know, out with the old and in with the new.”
Fifty years of BART
2,302,680: Average mileage for BART’s 1970s train cars89: Number of train cars that operated in 1972 and are still in use today“It will never work” — Margaret Thatcher, in 1969 after touring BART$2.6 billion: Cost of BART’s 775 new “Fleet of the Future” trains70 mph: BART’s maximum speed
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Source: Orange County Register