Trackside fire leads to major delays during Tuesday morning commute


Trackside fire leads to major delays during Tuesday morning commute

What started as a small fire along the tracks turned into major delays throughout the BART system on Tuesday, as multiple safety mechanisms triggered a train traffic jam.

The fire began around 7:45 a.m. in a piece of trackside equipment between Civic Center and Powell Street stations in San Francisco. The fire was extinguished quickly and estimates at that time were of delays of about 15-20 minutes.

However, it then became apparent that the problem would be much more widespread.

"It became clear that the fire did more damage than we thought to the trackside computerized equipment, which began triggering a series of commands that literally stopped the trains in their tracks for safety reasons in the area between Powell and 16th Street," said BART Chief Communications Officer Linton Johnson.

"At this point the computers will not let any train go through that area in automatic mode even though we have determined it's safe to go through there.  In order to override the computer we have to go in manual mode, which means trains can only go no more than 25 miles per hour through that mile and a half stretch. It's the equivalent of being on the freeway moving at 65 miles per hour, when suddenly you have to come to a complete stop and then resume going at 25 miles per hour for the rest of your journey."

"It created a ripple effect," Johnson said.

A complicated patchwork of rerouting was put in place to try and meter trains through the Transbay Tube during the busy morning rush-hour commute. The result for some passengers was delays of an hour or more. While the initial BART Service Advisories of 15-20 minute delays may have been accurate for some parts of the system, they did not reflect the far longer delays many customers experienced, Johnson said.  He said BART will work on improving the timeliness and accuracy of delay messaging so that customers will be aware of the full extent of such a problem.

"We heard loud and clear from many, many riders who experienced far longer delays that our advisory reported, and we sincerely apologize to them for that inconvenience," he said.  "We regret that we didn't calculate the maximum delay that some of our customers experienced.  That's our fault, we take full responsibility for that and we pledge to do our best to make sure that doesn't happen again."  

As of 3:30 p.m, Johnson said, "We expect the bulk of the evening commute for East Bay bound passengers to be on-time following this morning's fire.  We have enough trains located in strategic areas along the peninsula to be able to offer a near-normal commute schedule from Daly City into all parts of the East Bay."

By the afternoon commute, service had been restored on all lines into San Francisco. However, Johnson said,  "because trains going from Powell to 16th Street/Mission Stations still have to move at very slow speeds through the area affected by this morning's fire, there's still the potential that we may once again encounter a train traffic jam through the Transbay Tube.  So it's possible we may have to stop some trains coming from the East Bay into San Francisco.  If this happens, we will give priority to trains on the Pittsburg/Bay Point - SFO line.   We encourage passengers to add 10 to 15 minutes onto their commute if they're headed to stations in San Francisco or on the Peninsula."

BART hoped to have the trackside equipment problem completely fixed after the evening commute, when the number of trains passing through the area dies down, which will give crews more room to get the repairs completed.

Last updated Tuesday, March 30, 5:08 p.m.