Podcast: Go inside BART's version of mission control


Podcast: Go inside BART's version of mission control

In this latest edition of our podcast series “Hidden Tracks: Stories from BART” we take you behind the scenes of the Operations Control Center.  The OCC is the nerve center of the BART system.  This is where a dedicated team of problem solvers oversees BART’s critical infrastructure as well as all of the trains as they carry tens of thousands of passengers.   Public safety and doing everything possible to keep the trains on time are critical concerns. It’s a fast-paced environment where collaboration is the key.  In this episode we hear from one of the managers of the control center as well as a train controller who has been with BART for more than two decades.

You can also listen to the entire series.  Transcript below:

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“Ok so road manual 373 to A Lima and make sure there isn’t anything unusual.  And then road manual the 231 into 12th Street and we’re done.”

HOST: “Welcome to “Hidden Tracks: Stories from BART,” I’m Chris Filippi.  In this latest edition of our podcast series were going to take you behind the scenes of the Operations Control Center.  The OCC is the nerve center of the BART system.  This is where a dedicated team of problem solvers oversees all of the trains as they shuttle tens of thousands of passengers to their destinations as well as the infrastructure of the entire system.   Public safety and doing everything possible to keep the trains on time are critical concerns. It’s a fast-paced environment where collaboration is the key.  In this episode I’ll speak with one of the managers of the control center as well as a train controller who has been with BART for more than two decades.”BART podcast

HOST: “Speaking with Tony Robinson, he’s the manager of the Operations Control Center here at BART and we’re actually in the OCC right now and that in and of itself is a treat because a lot of people don’t get to come into this facility.   So let’s start there Tony, describe where we’re at and what happens here.”

ROBINSON: “We are located at the Lake Merritt station.  We work in a level below the station and it’s a pretty large room with the different positions around.  It’s dark and we have a main display board that shows the entire system and we have about three or four different stations in the control center.    We’ve got train controller, we’ve got communications specialist that provides information to all you passengers, we have a position that controls the electrification of the system.  So it’s a pretty complex control center.”

HOST: “There’s a lot going on here.  For me it almost feels like what I would imagine almost a mix between mission control at NASA and a tower at an airport like an air traffic control center.  Is that kind of a valid comparison?”

ROBINSON: “Yeah it is.  My background before I came here in 1996 was as an air traffic controller in the military, I spent 20 years doing that so I’ve worked at different control centers.  That’s pretty much what this is.  It’s a dark room with different positions and everybody has a responsibility and delays occur or an emergency occurs everybody’s required to act per the plans.”

HOST: “So you’re monitoring the trains but you’re monitoring a lot more than that as well, is that right?”

ROBINSON: “Yes, my primary job is to monitor the trains.  I also need to monitor the other positions the maintenance supervisor to see what’s happening with the trains, the communication specialist to make sure that they’re following any service plans or changes that we’re making.  Keep an eye on the electrification so there’s a lot of stuff I’m watching here.”

HOST: “Yes and one of the things you’re watching out for are delays.  I mean nobody likes a delay but once that happens you’re the guy who comes up with a plan.  Talk about how that works.”

ROBINSON: “Well I have to consider the time of day whether it’s a commute or non-commute, what direction the commute is flowing and at some point I might have to turn some trains back or go around a problem area or cross from one track to another, which is the start of single tracking which you guys might hear about.  Pretty much develop a new service plan and make sure that everybody’s on board and our communications specialist is giving you guys all the information about what the service plan is and keeping you aware of what the delay is.”

HOST: “And I would think just from me looking at it from a lay perspective that your options would be kind of limited.  I mean the track is where the track is it’s not like being in the air where you have all these options I would think of where you can put an airplane.”

ROBINSON: “We are limited in that sense.  We don’t have the altitude change or the direction change that we can use for the trains it’s pretty much one train behind another.  Our opportunity to get around a problem area is to cross over from one track to another and that’s pretty much all we can do.  During delays when we don’t have that opportunity we try to keep you aware of the service plan so that you’re given the option to maybe seek alternate transportation is the delay is really a major one.”

HOST: “I’m speaking with Tony Robinson.  He’s a manager at the Operations Control Center.  You know Tony one of the things we talk about quite a bit at BART is how the system is aging.  A lot of infrastructure is decades old, the computer system that controls our trains is no exception to that.  Can you talk about that and does that create any special challenges?”

ROBINSON: “Well it does.  We are an aging system that requires a lot of upgrading.  A lot of maintenance needs to be done on the tracks.  We do a major portion of our maintenance during non-commute hours when the system is closed and maintenance crews have a short window to go out and make repairs and do preventative maintenance.   The system is aging so much that we have to do this maintenance during revenue periods.  So at times during non- revenue we’ll set up work areas and we might single track so that a crew can go out and make these repairs.  We sometimes have to incur delays but we also have to keep in mind that this is work that has to be done and sometimes we’re just forced to take delays.”

HOST: “This is a job that carries so much responsibility.   You’re watching a grid here with all kinds of trains but really it’s so much more than that, it’s the people on the trains, it’s a heavy responsibility.  Keeping that in mind do you think it takes a certain type of person, a certain type of personality to be well fitted to this job?”

ROBINSON: “Yes it does.  It takes somebody who can work through pressure, some heavy multitasking, we’ve got a pretty intense training program that can last up to a year or two, almost a year-and-a-half.  We’re kind of changing our program to see if we can get more people certified but we’ve got a dropout rate of about 40% of trainees that can’t make it here.  It’s really a fluid, every-changing environment so it takes somebody who can really think on their feet and come up with solutions quickly.”

HOST: “What’s it like to work here on a really heavy usage day, say a Giants victory parade, one of our all-time sort of days where you have a half million people in the system?  Is it different and if so how?”

ROBINSON: “You know there’s planned delays and there’s unplanned delays.  When there are events occurring usually we have an operations plan so it’s a little bit easier to handle those.  During emergencies that come up out of nowhere it can be really taxing and draining work environment.  After an 8 hour shift sometimes you just want to go home and just go to sleep or toss a beer.”

HOST: “What’s your favorite part of this job?”

ROBINSON: “I think my favorite part of the job is it’s ever changing.  One day there might be something that goes wrong in a certain area and you handle it one way, the next day there’s something that might go wrong in the same area and you handle it a different way.  I think the most interesting part of this job is that every day you can learn something new.”

HOST: “One of the neat things about doing an interview like this and being here is you really learn about the inside of BART and how things work and most of our riders will never see anything like this.  If there was something you wanted our riders to know about the OCC, about what happens in this center what would it be?”

ROBINSON: “I’d like them to know it’s a very intense atmosphere to work in and that our main goal is to provide you with information about whatever service plan changes that we’re making.  Our goal increasingly throughout the last few years is to make sure the public is aware of the service changes so that’s my biggest thing is to make sure you guys are aware of what’s happening in the system.”

HOST: “You must take a lot of satisfaction out of this, it’s a big deal.”

ROBINSON: “Yeah I mean there’s days for instance when we have major delays you kind of go home and think about what you’ve done and sometimes you amaze yourself.  I’m a manager and I’m watching the entire control center but I work with a lot of really highly professional workers and a lot of the thinking and changes throughout the system are made by them.”

HOST: “So another thing to consider is wayside safety and the workers that are out there working on the rail and the rules that go into that and the communication that’s necessary for that.  Can you talk about that and what goes into that process?”

ROBINSON: “OK, well like I was telling you earlier because of the aging system we have a lot of work that’s happening during the period when the trains are operating.  So we are really working on safety for the workers that are out there doing this work.  We have a three-way communication strategy that we use during these periods and basically it’s to let the train operators know about the work area.  Letting the maintenance crews know about the trains that are approaching the area and make sure that there’s three-way communication between the control center, the train operator and maintenance personnel.”

HOST: “So in that case there’s a reason the trains are slowing down and it’s for safety, it’s for the safety of the workers.”

ROBINSON: “Yes.  Anytime we have crews wayside we slow the trains down.  That’s just the safety strategy we just have to do for their safety.  Crews are advised when trains are traversing their areas and also when trains are not operating in the normal flow of traffic for the work area, reverse running.”

HOST: “Tony, thank you for your time with this.”

ROBINSON: “OK, thank you, come down anytime.”

HOST: “That was Tony Robinson who is one of the managers of the Operations Control Center.  Now for Part Two of our inside look at the nerve center of the BART system.”

PART TWO:

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HOST: “Still here in the Operations Control Center.  Now I’m speaking with Alan Weinberg who is one of the train controllers for BART.  You were just sharing some of your background and what brought you to BART.  You’ve been here for 25 years, tell me a little bit about what brought you here and what got you started at BART.”

WEINBERG: “I started at BART 26 years ago as a part-time station agent.  My son had just been born sick with some medical conditions and I was looking for a job with good medical.  So I started at BART as a part-time agent.  Six months later I moved to the control center when I saw an opening for a train controller and I’ve now been in the control center for 25 years.”

HOST: “Very interesting that so many of the folks who work in this center, especially train controllers, have that background of being in the Air Force, being in the military and having that background as a flight controller.  It seems like there are a lot of parallels between the two jobs.”

WEINBERG: “There are.  There are a lot of parallels a lot of basic skill set: multitasking, situational awareness, flexibility.  We also have other control center personnel here that were ex-military controllers, there’s a few certified pilots here in the control center.  It’s that same control center environment command and authority type thing.”

HOST: “Now a lot of people listening are going to be like ‘wait a minute what is this we have train operators and now we have train controllers’ what’s the difference there?”

WEINBERG: “They call it train controller but it’s like a system controller.  We talk to the train operators via the radio.  We can control, to some degree, the train’s speed and the train’s direction of travel as far as whether we’re going to cross it over where it’s going to go.  There are some minimal controls that we have here but we really are more in place for delay management and strategies in the event of a problem.”

HOST: “So kind of expand on that.  Tell me a little bit about what a typical shift is like for you.  What are you doing here, I mean we’ve got this huge board with all these flashing lights and what not, it seems like a lot to keep track of?”

WEINBERG: “It can be.  When you first get on shift we have a responsibility to check overnight, what’s changed.  Rules and procedures are constantly changing as equipment status is changed.  So we’ll check in, we’ll read current rules and procedures, we’ll read about any areas of the system that we might be running at a reduced speed or there’s work going on, usually send two people at a time.  Our commute for us, my shift is two in the afternoon to ten at night.  We’re a 24-hour facility.  Commute for us starts at 1600 and it runs to 1900.  So commute for us means the spotlight’s on.  The minutes count, more trains on the track, the more people we carry the better.  So we’re looking at cars, each train has a length, a minimum length it’s supposed to be.   I’ve got two hours to start checking train lengths, make sure if a train’s short add another car to it.  It doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, oh you know it’s supposed to be ten tonight it’s only nine, well it’s a big deal to the 200 people that need to pack onto the same train.  So we’re constantly looking to build the trains up for commute and then we’re gearing up to make sure in that two hours do we have the personnel in place, we manipulate the schedule to provide better service.  You’ll see trains running that only go as far as 24th Street.  Some people are going, ‘this train’s only going to 24th Street why isn’t it going to Daly City or the airport,’ well the ability to turn that train at 24th Street means I’ve got it back down at Embarcadero 25 to 40 minutes before if I go to the end of the line.  So we look at the number of passengers that train carries past 24th Street.  Again, you’re going to find a philosophy used in most of our decisions down here ‘the needs of the many.’  Eighty percent of the time you may not realize it because you happen to be in the many category.  The decisions I’m making to turn trains back are benefiting you, you don’t know it.   There are times when you are, the needs of the many outweigh the few, there are times when you’re on a train that’s being turned back and you’re being forced to get off the train.  The best we can do is to give you the knowledge of when the next train is.  But we’re also, everything funnels into the city.  So if you’re in a train that’s being taken out of service at Lake Merritt, West Oakland, MacArthur we have to weigh the odds of what’s the problem that trains currently impact and is it worth it to take the train through the tube into the city where due to the age of the system we don’t have as many options if it has a problem.  So if we’re going to take the train out and it develops a problem, everything funnels into San Francisco.  Our ability to correct the problem and come up with strategies is so limited that we minimize your exposure by putting trains that aren’t running as well as they should be or have a problem into the loop in that area.”

HOST: “I’m speaking with Alan Weinberg one of the train controllers here in the Operations Control Center and it would seem like this can be a real pressure cooker. You were just talking about some of the decision that need to be made.  You’re worried about scheduling, you’re worried about passenger safety and you have to make decisions in a hurry it would seem like.”

WEINBERG: “You do, you definitely do have to make decisions in a hurry.  You make the best decision you can at the time and then you continue to develop the decision as you go. You look at, ‘ok I’ve made this decision and I’m doing it,’ but there’s also peripheral impact or collateral damage to other passengers.  So you look at how can I minimize the collateral damage.  I can move an extra train in that direction to pick them up.  You make your decision, you go with it and it’s the best decision at the time and you stay flexible with it and like the manager said one day you might learn there’s a better way to do that.  Those of us that have been here many years we walk around with a portfolio that’s a few, five drawer file cabinet and we can easily grab the portfolios that we’ve seen and used in the past and implement strategies.  So that’s why sometimes things aren’t going as fast for passengers, you have to understand we’re training new people.  25 years for me, 20 years for a lot of people and many of us are ready to go.  So sometimes things aren’t happening as fast as you might want because we’re taking the ability to start to train the new train controllers who are going to be in the chair for the next 20 years.  If I make all the decisions, ‘do this, do this,’ they’re not getting the knowledge they need so sometimes things aren’t happening as fast as you might want but it’s the exposure for them.  We’re constantly looking to the future and looking to the future also means training and getting our people down here up to speed so they can make decisions to.”

HOST: “What would you say is the most challenging aspect of your job?”

WEINBERG: “You can’t make everybody happy.  Again for me it goes back to, sorry most of my decisions are based upon the needs of the many.  Every day you just have to feel like, earlier I told myself everyday I’m going to go home and just feel like I made a difference no matter how small or how big.  And the thing is first and foremost that you have the ability to make a difference.  Everybody does here no matter how small I can make a difference.  I remember one day a friend of a neighbor told me, ‘my train got taken out of service at Concord and I was going to Baypoint,’ and you know if you’re late to pick up your kid at daycare sometimes it’s a dollar a minute and she says, ‘and all of a sudden out of nowhere this train came out of Concord yard they put it in service in Concord and I was on time.’  And I was thinking oh yeah a train was taken out of service while I was working, it was a replacement train I brought out of the yard.  99% of the time those trains just run out of service at Bay Point but this one day I said just stop at Concord and that one decision impacted her immensely, she didn’t have to wait.  So it’s just everyday just feel like try to make a difference, in whatever little decision you make you can make a difference with someone and try to look at it from the passengers’ point of view where are they being impacted how can I minimized that?    Through knowledge, through manipulation of a train, by getting an extra train operator so just everyday just try to make a little difference.  Drive home safe, did you make a difference?  Somedays it’s big, somedays it’s little but every day you can make a difference.”

HOST: “A lot of times there are things going on that are just, they develop and they kind of take a life of their own.  And I’m thinking specifically of some of the protests we’ve seen recently where BART ridership has just skyrocketed, especially some of the recent weekends we’ve really seen that.  Talk about what that means for your position and what kind of challenges that can present when all of a sudden there’s an influx of riders and sometimes it’s not even expected.”

WEINBERG: “For the most part down here it’s embraced.  It’s a challenge and we’re all of the personality where we enjoy challenges.    Whether it’s a playoff game or the parades that you talked about earlier it’s a challenge and a puzzle for us.  What can we do, how can we manipulate the system to put the most number of cars through the impacted stations?  So through a sense of synergy we all get along, we all strategize, we all come up with good plans.  I might have a piece of the puzzle another co-worker has another piece and you have to think, manipulate it and think outside the box.   We’re fortunate enough to have a manager that encourages us whether you’ve been here a year or 25 years that there are no bad ideas.  We need to think outside the box.  That’s the other thing for me, I’ve never started feeling like I knew everything.  I’m always learning.  There’s new students that have only been here a year, two years who have taught me things and showed me how to look at something from another angle.  And the more angles we can look at a problem the more solutions we can provide for the passengers.”

HOST: “One of the questions I always like to ask to the folks who work at BART is for the rider, they’re in their own world they’re on the train they’re looking to commute or whatever.  They don’t necessarily know about what goes on behind the scenes.  If there was something you’d want the BART riders to know about what happens in here and what you do what would it be?”

WEINBERG: “I think for the most part if I’m doing my job well you probably don’t have that many concerns or issues.  But there are times when the decisions I make are going to impact you directly and just because you’re being delayed or being forced off a train don’t think that that translate to ‘we don’t care.’  Again it’s back to the needs of the many outweigh the few so it’s never that we don’t care or we don’t understand what the passengers are going through, we do.  So sometimes turning back a train is because we’re mitigating a possible delay to greater passengers or we’re looking at possibly your safety.  Everybody in here cares, they wouldn’t be in here doing what we do and it’s a shame that we couldn’t find a way somehow to bring more passengers here to watch us because it is a synergy and everything we do is geared towards customer service, passenger on-time and safe delivery of those passengers and it’s about caring and everybody down here does care.”

HOST: “Train controller Alan Weinberg thanks so much for your time with this.”

WEINBERG: “Pleasure, thank you.”

HOST: “And thank you for listening to “Hidden Tracks: Stories from BART.”  If you like what you hear, please subscribe.  You can find us on SoundCloud, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher and at our official podcast page at BART.gov/podcasts.