BART’s Station Operations Manager uses real-world experience to provide seamless commute


BART’s Station Operations Manager uses real-world experience to provide seamless commute

It takes a team effort to carry more than 413,000 riders on a typical weekday.  On the latest edition of our podcast series “Hidden Tracks: Stories from BART” we meet Operations and Transportation Supervisor Phaethon Brown who oversees all station operations across BART.  Brown has spent more than 17 years with BART including his first 13 as a Station Agent.  Those years of service on the front lines of customer service give Brown invaluable insight on how BART really works and what it takes to keep things moving during the commute. 

Phaethon


HOST: “And I’m now speaking with Phaethon Brown the Manager of Transportation Station Operations here at BART.  Thanks so much for joining us.”

BROWN: “Thanks for having me, Chris.”

HOST: “You are the Manager of Transportation and Station Operations here at BART and it’s really a critical role.  You have your fingers on so much of what’s happening with BART especially with projects that directly impact our riders.  So, let’s start with a little explainer, tell me about your position, what exactly do you do?”

BROWN: “You’re right Chris.  Basically, the Manager of Transportation and Station Operations you oversee all of the operations for the entire district.  Forty-eight stations, two with our new eBART, we have Silicon Valley coming up next year and that will be an additional two stations.  Right now, as you know, we’re in a growing phase so we’re trying to take BART to the next phase of the future.  We’re doing a lot of modernizing on our core stations, which would be our original 32 stations that were built back in 1972.  The goal is to modernize them to give them the face of BART for our new extension stations so we’ll have some synergy across the board.  On a day-to-day basis there’s no set schedule.  I could be meeting with HR, or training for new classes coming in for new positions, working with the planning department on various projects throughout the District and it’s always exciting.”

HOST: “I bet.  Every day is different for you.  You’re probably one of our most visible employees just in the sense that you have to go to so many different places and you’re essentially one of the guys that’s making sure that things are happening.”

BROWN: “That’s true.  Transportation is a big department.  We have probably, for our frontline employees over 1,000 employees and on top of that you have your Transportation Supervisors, you have your managers, you have your Assistant Chief of Transportation Officers, and our Chief Transportation Officer Roy Aguilera.  It’s a big team and we work as partners not just with transportation but with all of BART.  There are so many projects, like you said, going on and our goal is to make sure our patrons have the best experience every single day for every ride and it’s a great experience and that’s our goal and also modernizing and giving it a very good look for the future.”

HOST: “It’s easy to forget how large this organization is and how many people are involved in trying to deliver this quality experience for our riders and a critical part of that is all these different teams at BART working together.  For your position you sound kind of like the glue that brings everyone together.”

BROWN: “I’m one piece of the glue, it’s a big group here.  You’re right, we have to have partnerships throughout the District not only at BART but in our communities and the cities throughout the state, even on the federal level.  Our goal is if it seems seamless we’re doing our job.  The patrons, their main goal is to get from A to B.  Go out to have a good time, go to have dinner, to get the kids to school, or whatever it may be.  We just want to make sure that that entire trip seems seamless and all the hard work we do behind, that’s the rewarding part about it.”

HOST: “What are some of the more interesting projects that you’re involved with right now?”

BROWN: “Right now, working with planning there’s a lot of transit-oriented development projects.  At BART we’ve now embraced the urban planning aspect of it so you’ll see a lot of our stations, communities are popping up.  MacArthur Station, for example, right now we have three new apartment buildings going up.  There will be a fourth that will probably break ground sometime this year.  So, as the community grows, as the region grows, we’re trying to give access to the growth part.  We know housing is one of the big issues here in the Bay Area and so BART’s planning department, real estate, construction, all of these folks have been working really hard to work with developers to get housing right at the doorsteps of BART.  Now you’ll be able to travel from San Francisco to the East Bay even all the way down to San Jose and you can live right at a BART station.  So, we’re helping out with the environment, we’re cutting emissions, we’re trying to be really proactive in going forward into the future.”

HOST: “I’m speaking with Phaethon Brown, Manager of Transportation and Station Operations here at BART.  Phaethon, BART is making quality of life issues on the system really a top priority.  It reflects the concerns of our riders and the feedback that we’ve received from those riders.  Do you feel like we’re making progress in providing those riders with the most pleasant experience possible?”

Phaethon

BROWN: “Yes, if you remember a couple years back marketing got out and we wanted to know what are we doing right, what are we doing wrong.  They were really instrumental with getting the information from the entire Bay Area of what are you happy with, what can we improve on and we’ve made those changes over the years.  It started out with our trains, the feedback was our trains are outdated, we still had carpet on the floor we had the upholstered seats, so we listened to the public.  Now, all hard surface floors, we have all vinyl seating and of course, for those who have been lucky enough to get on the Fleet of the Future, it’s a spectacular train.  Bombardier is our partner with that in the design but our new fleet is really an immaculate train and we listened to our community, we took all of their feedback and we think we’re creating the next phase of transportation not just for the Bay Area but the United States.”

HOST: “Your job even touches on the Fleet of the Future and there’s so much excitement about that.”

BROWN: “It is, I know that we’ve gotten some feedback that there’s a little frustration on the delay of it but we want to make sure that before we roll out the entire production that all the little bugs and all the kinks have been worked out and it’ll be the best experience for anyone that’s coming in from the Bay Area or traveling from around the globe.  We want them to know that, hey Bay Area Rapid Transit, we did our research, we did our due diligence and we want to make sure it’s the best.”

HOST: “That really is important, the idea of getting it right.  These trains are such complex systems that they’re really is a lot that comes into play with that and we want to make sure it’s not 80% or 90% right, it has to be 100%.”

BROWN: “Exactly and we pride ourselves on our on-time performance, sticking to our schedules.  We didn’t want to rush out, General Manager Grace Crunican, she wanted to make sure it was done as close to perfection as possible.  We could have rushed it out there as soon as we started getting the trains and then had some issues.  But instead of frustrating the public, let’s take an extra couple months or an extra year to make sure this new fleet is what everyone’s been waiting for over the past 42 years.  It’s going to take us so far out into the future it’s going to be worth the wait.”

Phaethon

HOST: “What’s the most challenging part of your job?”

BROWN: “Making sure that I’m effective with balancing all of the various jobs that are going on here.  It comes with challenges, but it’s rewarding.  You never know what’s going to happen in transportation from day to day.  We have things on the schedule but we are dealing with the public, we are dealing with things that are out of our control, sometimes.  We just want to make sure that we’re giving the best service possible on a day-to-day basis.  I think a lot of people don’t realize on the operations side we never shut down.  It’s a 24-7 365 business.  We are always trying to be perfect, we’re always trying to improve on our production and give the best to the Bay Area.”

HOST: “And I’ve seen you out in the system so many times.  On one of those days when you’re just running around how much ground will you cover?”

BROWN: “I try to track my steps.  On the average day it’s 10,000, on a busy day it can be 20,000 to 30,000 steps.  I’m getting my cardio, I’m taking care of myself.  But you’re right, you can be anywhere in the system.  I’m based here at headquarters on Lakeside but like I said, we have 48 stations so depending on the project, depending on what meeting you have to go to, meeting with contractors, what have you, I can be in 10 to 15 cities in one day making sure that everything’s being taken care of.”

HOST: “What a great experience at BART.  I’m speaking with Phaethon Brown, he’s the Manager of Transportation and Station Operations here at BART.  Phaethon, you have a really interesting path that took you to BART.  You’ve been with the District more than 17 years, what did you do before that?”

BROWN: “Right before I worked at Webvan, I don’t know if anybody recalls that?”

HOST: “I do, from the dot-com era.”

BROWN: “From the dot-com era, so I worked at Webvan and worked in transportation over there and training.  Webvan was one of those innovators that was a little bit before its time.  The Bay Area and the other markets they set up shop in just weren’t ready for it.  I had a good experience there, learned a lot from the e-commerce side.  Prior to that, I worked at Arthur Anderson, worked in accounting.  I also worked in entertainment as a personal manager, tour manager, even had an independent record label at one time.  You just take all those experiences and then you apply them to the next goal, the next job and it’s been a wild ride but it’s been wonderful.”

HOST: “Part of your ride here at BART really started out as being a Station Agent.  What was that experience like?”

BROWN: “That was a little eye-opening experience.  I would ride BART periodically, I’ve been in the Bay Area since 1986, originally from Louisiana.  Once I started working here and actually riding the system every day and dealing with the public.  Started in 2001 so I’ve seen the heights of the Bay Area economy the lows of the Bay Area economy, the housing market crash, 9-11.  You experience a lot over that time.  You come in and you see little kids in strollers and years later they’re off to college.  It’s a wonderful experience and you start to appreciate because there’s so many walks of life that we deal with at BART.  We deal with everyone across the globe on a global scale and so dealing with the public, it can be challenging at times but other times its rewarding.  Seeing your regular commuters every day and having conversations with them.  Celebrating birthdays, they’ll find out when your birthday is, bring you some cupcakes or cookies and stuff so it has its pluses but overall it’s a great experience.”

HOST: “Was it worthwhile for you to have the frontline experience that one gets as being a Station Agent, does that help you today because it’s not like you were doing that for a brief time and it’s not like you were at just one station?”

BROWN: “No, you’re right and that’s the thing.  I know a lot of people will see Station Agents and think that’s someone who works in a booth and in actuality a Station Agent actually manages the entire station.  They’re on the front line, that’s their office.  Anything that can go wrong at any given time, they’re the central person that gets information out.  If there’s an emergency they’re contacting BART Police or the fire department, they’re getting in contact with our control center and passing along the information.  But they’re not only the eyes and ears they troubleshoot a lot and they’re really the information source for BART.  Anyone who wants to know anything about BART or the Bay Area they’re that first face of BART out there and they’re really the spokespersons for BART at each station.  That gives you a lot of pride and a lot of people, like you said, they don’t know all that goes on at BART and the massive amount of teams that are behind the curtain.  That frontline employee, that Station Agent, that Train Operator, System Service Worker, BART Police, that’s who you interact with so you just want to make sure that’s the best experience for everyone across the board.”

HOST: “When you were a Station Agent, how many stations did you work at?”

BROWN: “Every single one, Chris.  You have your regular bided shifts when you start off and we have what’s called the extra board.  The extra board agent, same as the train operator, basically you fill in.  So, you might fill in on a day-to-day basis, a weekly basis but that can take you all over the system.  I’m one of the few in my tenure who worked every single station, every single shift so that gave me a vast amount of knowledge about station operations.  You learn the regions, you learn the different flows of patrons on any given day and, as you know, we are in the Bay Area so we have an abundance of sports teams, of events, music events, seasonal events, and so you just start learning throughout the year what to expect.  Downtime sometimes in the summer but then all the tourists arrive so you just go through it and you subconsciously figure out if I’m in the East Bay here’s what’s going on this time of season or if I’m in San Francisco, Oracle World or what have you and you just start putting it together and it becomes second nature.”

Phaethon

HOST: “I have to imagine that that sort of knowledge, that real world knowledge of how BART works you can only get that by experiencing it firsthand. I have to imagine that’s really valuable for you today as you bring all of these different departments together and really help to implement things because you know how things go in the real world of BART.”

BROWN: “Exactly.  All the departments work together on some level or another but when you’re doing planning, planning out projects or rolling out new processes or procedures or policies you have that real-world experience or frontline experience to say hey, ‘this will work in this situation but it won’t work over here.’  That way we’re not making mistakes, we’re not guessing and throwing it out there to backfire on us.  That’s the good part.  I’ve lived it and I still have the relationships out there, I’m still out there day to day.  Like I said, I could be anywhere from five stations in a day to 20 stations in a day.  You still see what’s going on out there, you have a pulse on it and that information is really valuable to make sure we’re not making critical mistakes going forward.”

HOST: “I’m speaking with Phaethon Brown, Manager of Transportation and Station Operations here at BART.  After your time as a Station Agent, you were promoted to Transportation Supervisor.  Tell me about that, what did that position entail?”

BROWN: “Transportation Supervisor basically you oversee our first level of supervisors, our Operations Foreworkers.  It’s roughly maybe about 70 foreworkers and that’s for maybe almost a thousand employees.  They handle the day-to-day scheduling and attendance and they also handle the dispatching of our trains in our train yards and our TM zones.  So, a Transportation Supervisor basically oversees all of that from the direction of the assistant chiefs.  We have four assistant chiefs of train transportation and they’re on each line.  All of our lines and in central.  Basically, you’re making sure that everyone is abiding by the policies and procedures, any payroll issues, making sure the training is done in a timely fashion and implemented, and working with the public and working with other departments as well for projects that might just pertain to your line.  Any new construction that’s going on, any scheduled shutdowns and maintenance you’re just on the pulse of it to make sure everything runs smooth.”

HOST: “That position helped to bring you to where you are today and as we mentioned, you’re involved in so many things.  One of the things you’re involved with that I’m interested in learning more about is the Diversity Group.  I think that might be a new term for some people who listen to this.  Tell me about that, what is that and what’s its role here at BART?”

BROWN: “It’s my second year on the Diversity Group and it’s called the Employee Resources Group, for short our Diversity Group.  So basically, roughly about 20-25 individuals, we volunteer each year, sign up.  From all different departments, all walks of life and we want to make sure that everyone at BART and all of our customers are represented.  We are in probably, outside of New York, the biggest melting pot in all of the United States in the Bay Area.  The goal of the Diversity Group is to make sure that everyone is acknowledged and everyone is appreciated.  Throughout the year we have various outreach with the community and also internally.  We just recently had our Asian Heritage Day over at the MTC building.  We ended up putting on a fashion show from all of the different areas of Asia and it was a wonderful event.  We’ll invite speakers in, we’ll have entertainment and normally it’s open to the public as well.  Once a year we’ll try to do our Diversity Fair, which normally takes place over at Lake Merritt Station where our old headquarters used to be.  The goal is just inclusiveness.  Everyone, we’re all humans, we’re all family, we’re all friend, we’re all co-workers and we just want to make sure that everyone is represented equally.”

HOST: “From your personal experience at BART, do you feel like BART has embraced diversity?”

BROWN: “Oh definitely.  As large as we are, we’re not in the tens of thousands but we’re roughly around 3,500 or 4,000 and everywhere you go on BART you see the diversity.  I let everyone know that BART is probably one of the most diversified companies I’ve ever worked for.  There’s really no age restrictions.  A lot of people have retired from various walks of life, different occupations and they’ll come here and they’ll have a second life at BART.  We are really open as far as diversity goes and our numbers show it, our staff shows it, and it’s a really positive place to work.”

HOST: “You wear so many hats in your position and that comes into play with the Arts Committee.  You’re involved with that as well and there really is this effort gaining momentum to beautify the system, especially our stations.  Tell us about the Arts Committee.”

BROWN: “The Arts Committee, it’s new.  Jennifer Easton runs it.  Just recently the Board approved the funding for it and the goal, again because we represent so many different communities and every community has their story, they have their background.  The goal is now to go to our stations and meet with different neighborhood committees and artists from the communities to start adding art representative of that area.  We want to make sure that BART doesn’t have one seamless look.  You get on in the Mission and you’re going to have different types of sculptures representatives of that area and the heritage and the history of that neighborhood.  Then you come over to Oakland and then different stations in Oakland it will represent certain time periods and the pulse of that neighborhood and then as we go out to San Francisco and San Jose.  The Arts Committee’s goal is to celebrate art, first off, and to work with the communities to bring their vision to BART.  It’s new, it’s exciting.  I was recruited on the ground floor because of working out in station operations.  Right now, there’s a call to artists in the Bay Area to start submitting work whether it’s sculptures or its pieces that hang in the stations and you’ll start seeing new art pieces and sometimes we’ll have an exhibit going on in a station for a week or a certain period of time.  It’s really the synergy of BART realizing we need to embrace our community and have it represented.”

HOST: “We mentioned earlier the importance of getting feedback from our riders and how much we value that.  I think one of the great things about this podcast series is it really is a chance for us to communicate directly with the folks who ride BART and who really care about this system and how it works.  Having said that, if you had a chance to talk with one of our riders who maybe has had a frustrating experience.  Maybe they were on a train that wasn’t very clean, maybe they’re concerned about safety.  What would your message be to them, what would you tell them?”

BROWN: “Every person’s experience is going to be different, it depends on what’s going on in their life.  Are they stressed at work or are there issues going on, or it could definitely just be something out of their control?  We do our best at BART to listen to our public, our customer service, our call center.  As soon as they’re getting information in they’re sending it out into the field to the appropriate transportation lines or BART police or if it’s a maintenance issue we try to get that out as soon as possible.  We know now that there’s certain social aspects that are happening that’s out of everyone’s control and we hear them.  We’re addressing that with BART police, with our communities that we serve, with city councils.  BART is really proactive in making sure you get the best experience each time you ride.  But if there is something of concern notify us.  We know that BART Police has their app where you can notify them anonymously if you don’t want to contract the train operator.  If you do, on each train car there’s always a speaker to contact the train operator or you can wait until you are off board and you can talk to the Station Agent or you can call BART Police at 510-464-7000 to leave your concerns or contact our customer call center.  But we do listen to our public, I can guarantee you that’s one of our General Manager’s top priorities.  We also get customer appreciate as well, everything’s not negative but she wants to make sure that’s getting addressed as soon as possible on a daily basis.  For those who have a thumbs up for us, we get a lot of positive feedback from the public so when we make changes or they see us working hard with trying to rectify an old problem we get the thumbs up.  They let us know, ‘you guys actually are listening, we appreciate you, you’re cutting the shrubs around my station and my station’s cleaner or whatever it might be.”  Then we give the kudos as due to our employees, our front-line employees we’ll let them know.  They get a positive commendation for helping out and keeping us on track to be the best transportation.”

HOST: “There’s so much going on at BART.  So many projects:  Fleet of the Future, station improvements, quieter wheel profile, go right down the list.  Is there any particular project that you’re most excited about?”

BROWN: “I’m really excited about us going down to the San Jose area.  That’s been talked about, as you know, for decades and the fact it’s actually coming to fruition where we’ve now connected the East Bay, the North Bay, the South Bay all into one.  I think that’s probably one of our biggest achievements because a lot of people thought it will never happen, ‘you guys will never make it down to San Jose.’  The fact that working with VTA and working with everyone involved to get everything on ballot and getting it approved that’s a huge milestone for us.  Now to be able to basically enjoy the entire Bay Area via BART.  You can get on BART now, in next year and coming years and pretty much go everywhere you want to go.  You want to catch a Sharks game we’ll get you there.  You still want to go see the Raiders or Niners we’ll get you there, the Warriors, and every concert hall we access.  It’s just a great feeling to see, like when I started we probably had roughly around maybe 34 stations and in that time, we’ve added an additional 14, 16, about to be up to 18.  That’s huge to say over a decade and a half we just keep expanding, we’re expanding.  All those communities that want us and everything goes right we’re coming out there, that’s the beauty of it to see that growth.”

HOST: “In line with that and the growth of BART, do you have a favorite BARTable destination?”

BROWN: “Downtown San Francisco.  Work in the East Bay and I never drive to San Francisco.  The wife and I, we’re going to a concert, or we’ll catch a Giants game, or go to visit friends for dinner the ease to take BART to get in and out of San Francisco with all the traffic and construction is just peace of mind.  People ask me do I actually ride BART and I take BART every single day so I’m an avid commuter for BART just like everyone else and that’s the goal of it.  The ease of transportation, the ease of getting where you need to go so that’s my normal highlight going in and out of San Francisco.”

HOST: “We’ll finish with this, if there’s one thing you want riders to know about your job and what you do here at BART what would that be?”

BROWN: “My goal as I would say everyone else’s goal is to make sure they get the best experience possible.  If there’s anything that we can do to improve, there might be some things in the works that we’re not at liberty to let out yet, but I can guarantee you that we’re working hard and diligently to get us to the next level of technology.  The ease of riding, the ease of purchasing tickets, Clipper cards, and the ease of a nice, great ride no matter where you’re going anytime day or night.  We hear you and we are working diligently and we hope that you have the best possible experience on BART.”

HOST: “Phaethon Brown, Manager of Transportation and Station Operations here at BART that was a lot of fun thanks so much for your time.”

BROWN: “Thank you, Chris.”

HOST: “And thank you for listening to ‘Hidden Tracks: Stories from BART.’  You can listen to our podcasts on SoundCloud, iTunes, Google Play, Sticher, and of course at our website BART.gov/podcasts.”