Podcast: Maintaining BART's right-of-way is a 24/7 job


Podcast: Maintaining BART's right-of-way is a 24/7 job

The term "right-of-way" might be a familiar one when it comes to driving, but it is also a phrase that is critically important when it comes to operating a railway.  This time on our podcast series we’re going to learn about BART’s right-of-way team.  That’s a group that plays a critical role in making sure the trains keep running.  We’ll get an inside look at the train control group that maintains some 5,000 critical assets at BART.   We’ll also learn about the right-of-way crews that work to keep debris and other obstacles off the tracks.  It’s an around the clock job that becomes even more important during a stormy winter such as what the Bay Area has been experiencing.

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

right-of-way team

HOST: “The term ‘right-of-way’ might be familiar when it comes to driving, but it is also a phrase that is critically important when it comes to operating a railway.  Welcome to our latest edition of “Hidden Tracks: Stories from BART.”

This time on our podcast series we’re going to learn about BART’s right-of-way team.  That’s a group that plays a critical role in making sure the trains keep running.  We’ll get an inside look at the train control group that maintains some 5,000 critical assets at BART. 

We’ll also learn about the right-of-way crews that work to keep debris and other obstacles off the tracks.  It’s an around the clock job that becomes even more important during a stormy winter such as what the Bay Area has been experiencing.”

BART podcast

Train Control Section Manager Douglas Kennedy

HOST: “And I’m now speaking with Douglas Kennedy, he’s a manager of our train control section talking about train control.  And Doug first of all thanks for your time with this.”

KENNEDY: “No problem at all.” 

HOST: “I think for a lot of our riders they haven’t even heard the term ‘train control’ before and I think for those who have maybe they don’t fully understand what it means.  Can you explain and how does train control come into play when it comes to the BART system?”

KENNEDY: “So train control is what allows the BART trains to move in automatic.  The BART system is divided up into about 2,300 track circuits which monitor the movement of the trains by detecting their occupancy all over the system.  These track circuits not only keep track of the trains but they actually send signals to the trains to tell them how fast to go, where to stop, where to turn, when to open the doors up.  Beyond all that, what it allows us to do with train control is actually keep the trains at a safe distance from one another, prevent collisions inside the system and just to maintain safe headways throughout the system.  Beyond all the track circuits in the system, train control also is responsible for 500-plus switch machines, which are responsible of course for moving the trains from track to track to get them to different destinations as well as all the wayside signal lights and of course all the vital controllers and relays and such that keep it all working together.  It also links back to our everything, it links back to our Operations Control Center which allows the train controllers to make adjustments to the train control system in real time on the fly so any situation that arises in the system they’re able to modify some of the parameters to keep the trains moving.”

HOST: “I’m fascinated by some of the numbers here.  You mentioned the BART system has 2,300 track circuits.  That seems like an incredible number and when you think about BART I mean really what it is this gigantic electrical train system and it’s very complicated isn’t it?”

KENNEDY: “It is highly complex, absolutely.  Yes, 2,300, a touch more than that, the circuits themselves range from about 300 feet long up to about 1,100 feet long with most of them being about 700 feet, about the length of a ten car train.  You get 110-plus miles of track you end up with a lot of track circuits.”

HOST: “And what this all comes back to of course is keeping the trains in automatic train control.  Talk a little bit about that, I think some riders kind of know that but maybe some don’t.  Why is that important and what does it mean for the speed of our trains?” 

KENNEDY: “Automatic train control, what it allows for is it allows for trains to move at their maximum available speed at any given time.  When trains get pulled out of automatic train control for some reason they need to go into what we call road manual here at BART and when the trains are operated manually their maximum speed is only 25 miles an hour on the mainline.  So if a train is going over 25 it’s in automatic.  Safety is probably the biggest thing that comes along with the train control system.  The ability to monitor the trains automatically and to keep them essentially away from one another as they’re going through.  Also it allows the train to fully pull into every station, fully berth and open the doors usually right at those little black markers on the platform.” 

HOST: “And you mention safety and that’s of course critical too and that extends to some of your responsibilities.  I’m thinking specifically of the wayside folks and for crews to be able to do work on the rail that really does involve your team as well.”

KENNEDY: “Absolutely.  There are a slew of rules that govern wayside access, working around the trains and just being in the right of way.  Train control is responsible for setting up and taking down the work areas actually for every crew that goes wayside not just train control department but for any other department that needs to enter the wayside.  We establish speed restrictions to slow the trains down when they’re passing through work areas and what we call “prohibits,” which are electronic gates or electronic locks that we use to keep trains out of particular areas while crews are working wayside.  Beyond that, as far as the crew itself we have wayside lights that we employ to warn other on-rail equipment about our work area and we employ watch people too who stand-by and keep an eye out for potential hazards while we’re wayside.”

HOST: “I’m speaking with Doug Kennedy who is one the train control section managers here at BART.  You’re one of the managers of the train control section so let’s talk about your team and how your crew works together to keep the trains moving.  How does it all come together?”

KENNEDY: “Sure thing.  Well, I’m not THE train control section manager I’m actually one of four.  Each one of us has a special discipline that we’re assigned to.  My particular specialty and I work with my crews is on capital projects and capital improvements so my project crew is responsible for installing new equipment that’s coming into the system through these capital improvement projects to better improve the system.  So nightly we’re going out and taking it apart one piece at a time and putting new goods in.”

HOST: “We often talk about infrastructure at BART and how much of it dates back to the opening of the system.  A lot of our equipment is 40 plus years old.  How does that come into play with your job?”

KENNEDY: “It comes into play with my job daily.  The improvements that we’re making right now and the particular items we’re getting after, which is a lot of the actual wayside train control equipment, track circuit antennas, wayside signals, platform antennas are all original to the system.  They are 40, 45 years old.  Unbelievably still clicking away in most cases 45 years later but they are very much due for replacement and we’re getting after it.”

HOST: “We mentioned earlier the 2,300 track circuits or roughly 2,300 and you just mentioned all kinds of equipment that you’re watching over as well.  How many assets are you guys responsible for?”

KENNEDY: “Well loosely broken down a little over 5,000 that we maintain and repair and improve daily.”

HOST: “That seems like a Herculean task.  What’s the most challenging part of what you guys do?”

KENNEDY: “Well let’s see.  Really the most challenging part is the balancing act.  It’s trying to deal with the immediate repair needs of the system without sacrificing the preventive maintenance, the assistance to other departments and the capital improvement work that we do as well.”

HOST: “If you had a chance to speak with BART riders and you were talking about train control and again I think a lot of folks out there don’t really know what happens behind the scenes.  What would you want them to know about the work that you and your team do?”

KENNEDY: “I would probably like them to know that it’s not easy and most of its done outside the public eye.  As well a lot of work that happens here at BART is done outside the public eye.  Our wayside access is restricted during the day, we can get out and do a little bit of work during the day, but the bulk of our work really does happen on the graveyard shift during non-revenue hours between about 1:30 in the morning and four o’clock in the morning it’s all systems go.    We work, train control reaches every inch of the system so we’re in stations, on the trackways, in tunnels, on aerials, we work in adverse weather conditions, we work in the middle of the night.  So it can be dangerous and challenging and exciting at times too.   The other interesting thing about it is not only do these guys need to have this sort of roughneck mentality of getting out there in the middle of the night but these are highly educated, highly trained electronic technicians that need to have the skills to work on this very technical equipment.”

HOST: “I would guess so and it seems like time is really of the essence there.  In other words you only have a certain amount of time in those overnight hours to get the work done that really needs to happen.”

KENNEDY: “It is and so it takes a lot of planning and a lot scheduling and prep work so when the trains go to the bed for the night we’re on it.  We’re out there and hitting the ground running.”

HOST: “What’s the most satisfying part of the job for you?”

KENNEDY: “Fixing things, I love to fix things.  Knocking out a persistent problem.  It’s really nice to get something put away and put to bed.”

HOST: “Doug Kennedy one of our train control section managers thank you so much for joining us.”

KENNEDY: “You’re very welcome.”

HOST: “And now here’s Part Two of our right-of-way podcast where we learn more about what BART does to keep the trackway open during what has been an especially stormy winter season.”

BART podcast

Structures Foreworker Mark Rubenaker

HOST: “And I’m now speaking with Mark Rubenaker who is a structures foreworker here at BART and he’s been with BART for 18 years.  Mark, it’s a pleasure to talk with you.”

RUBENAKER: “Thank you.”

HOST: ”So maintaining the right of way is obviously very important and it’s a team effort here at BART.  Now you’re a structures foreworker so let’s start there.  Kind of describe your job and tell me what you’re focused on.”

RUBENAKER: “Well I’m focused on maintaining the right of way in these storms where we get a lot of water and a lot of issues with trees and stuff like that.  My main focus is on what areas to hit hard when they need us out there.  Most of the time San Francisco is a big part of the areas that we need to maintain.  A lot of water out there, a lot of trees that we have issues with.  Daly City is one of the main problems that we have.  There’s a lot of trees in the area and we’ve had two issues with that already so that’s one of our points.  We try to keep guys on the East Bay side and on the West Bay.  So we cover the lines, the Alameda line which is basically anywhere from Fremont out to Oakland and then we run the Concord line which is from Pittsburg-Bay Point all the way to Orinda and then we’ll have a crew over in San Francisco that runs everywhere from Embarcadero all the way out to Daly City and out to Millbrae if we have to.”

HOST: “And you mentioned the Daly City situation that had a big impact on a lot of folks of course.  Describe what happens when a tree comes down like that and has an impact on BART service.  What do you guys do to respond?”

RUBENAKER: “OK, well first of all my crews I send them out right off the bat.  I send them off with all the necessary equipment, that’s usually chainsaws and then pumps also because of the water flooding and stuff.  But in terms of what happened over at Daly City, my guys were already set up over in San Francisco and my job is to make sure that Central knows I have crews in the required areas.   So I call them, they let me know that’s great send them out there.  Then we monitor all the radios so we’re monitoring the lines and seeing what’s going on.  In the case of Daly City we heard the radio dispatch saying that there was a tree that had actually come into contact with a train.  So because we were all monitoring the radios my guys were already set up, I called them and as soon as I called them they were already en route.  That’s when Central calls and I was able to tell them that my crews was already en route and they would be there in about ten minutes.  We have to be quick because we can not have trains out of service for long periods of time.  It’s good because now once an incident like this happens Central takes over and then they’ll tell my crew and there are usually one or two other crews that will respond.  So you’ll have a structures crew that will respond, a track crew that will respond and then also an electrical crew that will respond.  Actually sometimes there’s even if the grounds department, they’re the ones who have a lot of the chainsaws and everything like that.  If they’re on hand, they’ll respond also.  So our job is to make sure that we get the radios set up with Central for communication, talk back and forth, make sure they know we’re there and ready to go.  Because this was on an aerial structure we had to get clearance to go up on the aerial and we had to make sure Central okays us first.   So they have to make sure that they stop a train from coming into that area and get my guys into that area to assess the situation.  Once they’ve assessed the situation that’s when we start taking care of the business.  The cutting of the tree, getting the tree out of the trackway, checking the third rail, cover boards, making sure there’s nothing obstructing the train from moving again and if there is we have to get it out of the way, which there were obstructions, there was tree cutting, there was third rail cover board issues so we had to take care of all that.”

HOST: “What a winter this has been for the Bay Area and it impacts everybody and certainly that’s true for BART as well.  What kind of challenges has this season presented for you and your crew?”

RUBENAKER: “Since this is the first of probably first winter storm that’s been bad in a good ten year that I know of we run into problems with flooding, which is PG&E rooms, we have flooding in drain grades, different lines have different problems.  Richmond usually has a couple of areas where they flood which we’ve kept from happening lately by cleaning out all the drains.  Concord line we have one are we watch because of a slide area, which normally you wouldn’t have this problem but with all the rain it’s caused the side of the hill to start sliding a little bit.  We’ve been watching that, which is really boring when all you’re doing is you’re watching the side of the hill and nothing’s happening.  But you have to do it because in case something does happen and the hill does come off the side and into the trackway we’re in trouble.”

HOST: “And that’s something I wanted to touch on too is that preventative work.  Do you guys get an opportunity to do much of that?”

RUBENAKER: “Yes.  Preventative work is our big thing.  We switch off, well night crew the night structures crew goes out and what we do is we maintain the drains in the system.  So we take out equipment that sucks out the drains to make sure they’re clear and when we get these big rains that they’re draining.  We go out and we check drains in parking lots, we check drains along the whole system.  We have areas that flood that you normally wouldn’t even think of and you’ll come upon them just by driving around and all of a sudden you’ll see one and wonder why is that flooding.  Sometimes it’s a basketball, a lot of paper, a lot of plastic goods that get into these drains that we have to go and find.  And once we take those out everything releases.  The PG&E rooms, the grates are in the street so the water has a free flow into there.  We have some pumps in those stations usually but sometimes there’s so much water that they shut off.  So we have to get in there, we have to turn them back on and hopefully they’re not broken.  Or we’ll take in some pumps and pump out the water in certain areas.  But preventative we try to head off the rain and the storms by getting crews into locations that we know are going to have problems and we try to make sure that we get those taken care of ahead of time.  Taking care of the drains we go in there usually once a month we do preventative and then usually around August or September we start taking out our equipment and sucking out the drains so that we can be prepared for this.  And this year in fact we’ve been pretty lucky in terms of with all the rain our drains have been holding up pretty well.”

HOST: “Speaking with Mark Rubenaker who is one of the structures foreworkers at BART and you’ve been describing some pretty challenging circumstances.  I would think you have to do a lot of your work in less than ideal conditions.  Does it ever get dangerous?”

RUBENAKER: “Well, we’re very safety conscious.  We go out there and like I said we have radios we usually go in three and four man crews.  If we do have to go on the right of way Central is great, they take care of us.  We have great communication with them.  The train operators, they’re always watching for us, especially if they know we’re in the area.  We do slow down the trains in those areas to make sure nobody gets hurt and the train operators can slow the trains down fast enough before something does happen.  Challenge wise, we have a very good crew here and they take care of themselves, they take care of others and we’re always watching out and making sure we’re in a safe environment.    It has gotten a little sketchy every once in a while because guys don’t usually get to be on rail a lot.  So when they do get out there the first time they feel the train come by it’s like it takes the wind out of you, it scary at first.  But they’re not running at 70, they’re running slower for us and then you realize I’m safe because I’m over here and we can be anything from six feet to 20 feet away.  But you still feel it when the train goes by, it’s weird.”

HOST: “I bet, what an experience.  What’s interesting too, just on a personal level you’ve been here for 18 years but you’re not the first member of your family to work at BART.  Your dad worked here and you were telling me your brother currently works here as well so tell me a little about that.”

RUBENAKER: “My dad was a track-inspector foreworker for 34 years.  In fact he’s still in a working environment at BART.  He’s a safety monitor, he’s been doing that for I think like eight years now.  He got in at a young age back in the 70s and I just decided it’s something I’d like to do.  Work for BART, I saw how good of a job it is and finally just decided one day that I might want to do this.  And my best friend pushed me to go to school with him in Chico and I told my dad I said I want to be a welder.  He was kind of shocked at that, he wanted me to be an electrician but I didn’t want to play with the wires.  But I became a welder and it took me a couple of years to get in, I finally got in and I’ve enjoyed it for the 18 years I’ve been here.  My brother has been here for 19, he started over in Hayward at the stores department and then he came over to the structures department and he loves it just like I do.  It’s a great job to have.”

HOST: “I like to say a lot of the important work at BART happens behind the scenes, our passengers will never see it.  If you had a chance to share about your experience, about your job with the folks who ride BART, what would you want them to know?”

RUBENAKER: “That when you’re seeing us out there a lot of times we’re out there working to make sure that there’s nothing wrong with the system.  Our job is to maintain the system to assure that the people are getting to their areas of work and families on time and safe.  On the backside of everything we’re constantly fixing stuff to make sure.  We’re out there, we’re keeping up the maintenance, trying to clear drains like I said for the storms.  We’re trying to maintain the rail, which the track department takes care of.  Our department is a big support group.  We support all of the different departments at BART.  We supply support for the electricians when they go out, we’re the ones going out there and helping them do their electrical work.  The track department, we help them with the shutdowns and stuff, making the rail quieter and safer.  We’re out there, you don’t always see us because a lot of the work gets done at nights, which is a blanket area of time and that’s anywhere from about 1:30 to 4 o’clock.  Before them we’re getting all of our equipment ready to start the jobs and then once we’re out there lots of times you don’t see what’s going on because we’re in tunnels and up an aerials and we’re not in areas where a lot of people see us.  But we’re maintaining the system to make sure that everyone is safe.”

HOST: “Structures foreworker Mark Rubenaker thanks so much for joining us.”

RUBENAKER: “Thank you, appreciate it.”

HOST: “Thanks for listening to the latest edition of “Hidden Tracks: Stories from BART.”  You can subscribe to our podcasts on iTunes as well as follow us on SoundCloud.  We also make Hidden Tracks available via Google Play, Stitcher and at the new home for our series:  BART-dot-gov-slash-podcasts.”