BART's success in maintaining continuous service directly after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake reconfirmed the system's importance as a transportation "lifeline."
BART has an Earthquake Emergency Response Plan and we hold several drills a year to ensure staff is trained and ready to respond. In the event of an earthquake, riders should listen for instructions from BART personnel. Employees are trained to evacuate the public from dangerous areas. Following an earthquake, BART trains are held in place (except for trains in the Transbay Tube and BART Caldecott Tunnel) for at least 5 minutes to ensure the shaking isn't followed by an even bigger quake. The control center staff then check for the magnitude of the quake, any alarms and reports of damage. Train Operators then move their trains at reduced speed while visually inspecting the track.
Early Warning Earthquake System
BART is an early adopter of the ShakeAlert system. It has been in place at BART since August 2012 and in 2018 we upgraded to the new ShakeAlert 2.0 system. There are two servers receiving a continuous stream of messages from more than one hundred seismic stations located throughout Northern California. It receives actual shaking data from each seismic station once per second. The threshold for an alarm is roughly 5.0, and 4.0 for seismic stations closer to the Bay Area, on the Richter scale. When the alarm is triggered, the system automatically sends a speed restriction command to trains, which then automatically begin braking down to 27 mph. It takes about 20 seconds for trains in Automatic Train Operation at 70 mph to slow to 27 mph.
This system removes human response time and can even slow trains down before the shaking occurs depending on how far away the quake is centered. Early warning depends on where the earthquake occurs. The farther away the shaking occurs, the more advance warning we get. The system can provide as as much as a 50 seconds early warning for earthquakes at or beyond extremes of the monitored region. For quakes centered within the BART region, there is no early warning but the system has the advantage of automated response to slow the trains instead of requiring human reaction.
In 2020, BART and US Geographic Survey extended its agreement for BART to continue to use ShakeAlert data.
Earthquake Safety Tips
Where will you be and what will you do when the next big earthquake hits? Taking time to consider these questions now could help if you ever do find yourself in an earthquake.
Listen for Instructions
That’s one reason why the first guideline in a BART emergency is to follow instructions from BART personnel. The BART Operations Control Center is in constant communication with trains and Station Agents and is in the best position to manage emergencies and provide direction for the public.
On a Train
If you’re on a train during an earthquake, Train Operators will follow BART’s established emergency plan and provide you with important information. Sit down if possible or grab a handhold to avoid injury. If an evacuation is necessary, emergency response personnel will coordinate.
In a Station
If you’re in a station during an earthquake, back away from the edge of the trackway. If you’re in the station concourse, don’t proceed to the platform. Instead, prepare to evacuate the station under the direction of BART personnel.
No matter where you are, emergency experts recommend using text messaging instead of cell calls to communicate with family and loved ones in an emergency. Cell networks can be overwhelmed if everyone’s trying to call at the same time; text messages can be more efficient.
Earthquake Safety Program
BART has spent the last decade retrofitting vulnerable high traffic portions of the original system to make it safer in a large quake. The Earthquake Safety Program is funded in part by Measure AA, a $980 million general obligation BART bond approved by voters in 2004. The Program focused on upgrading portions of the original system not only for life safety but also to ensure that we can return to operation shortly after a major earthquake.
The Transbay Tube is BART’s most critical asset. Although the tube is structurally sound, in a very large and very rare earthquake, the outer shell and concrete liner are predicted to crack. To address concerns of flooding, BART Directors awarded a contract in December 2016 to retrofit the tube with the installation of an inner steel shell and new pumping system. Learn more about this project.
Listen to our podcast (or read the transcript) about our efforts to improve earthquake safety at BART.