Podcast: BART’s wet weather game plan pays off with fewer delays


Podcast: BART’s wet weather game plan pays off with fewer delays

bart rain

Transcript below:

HOST: “Rain can have a major impact on the Bay Area’s commute and BART is no exception.  “Welcome to Hidden Tracks: Stories from BART.”

On this edition of Hidden Tracks, we’re answering your questions about why BART so often faces delays when it rains. BART has a game plan to keep weather-related issues to a minimum that’s put into action by a team with decades of experience.  

Preparation and hard work are key.  The effort began well before this winter’s storms arrived.  Grounds crews worked for months to trim back trees and brush that could be threatened by powerful winds and rain.  That effort has led to a sharp decline in the number of trackway obstructions compared with last winter.

To learn more, we’ll visit with John Floris who is the Superintendent of BART’s Vehicle Trouble Desk.  But first let’s hear from the manager of BART’s Operations Control Center.

I’m now speaking with Fred Edwards, the Manager of the Operations Control Center here at BART and Fred, first of all, thanks for taking some time for us on this.”

EDWARDS: “Thanks for having me.”

HOST: “A lot of our riders have questions about BART and the rain.  We’ve had a lot of storms recently in the Bay Area.  Certainly, good news when you talk about getting out of the drought but for BART not necessarily the best-case scenario sometimes.  Let’s start with, you’re in charge of the Operations Control Center, that’s really the nerve center for our BART operations.  When you guys know that a storm is coming what steps do you take to prepare for that?”

EDWARDS: “First, we do pay attention to our weather patterns.  We do get reports from the national weather site.  However, what I really want to point out is if you look at the work we’ve done in the last three to five years, both with maintenance and transportation, you’ll notice we didn’t have as many rain or water-related incidents this year as we normally would.  That comes as a result of cutting down trees and having a very aggressive tree-trimming program where we brought in contractors in addition to our own personnel.  When we know that the first rain or storm of the season is coming in we’re really aggressive in getting our crews out there to clean out the sumps, clean out the drains, especially in those areas that we don’t control where we have a lot of leaves they clog up our drains.  Also, we’ve weather proofed our boxes, our electronic boxes on the wayside.  Water and electronics don’t mix.  What we’ve done on our wayside, or within our right of way where our trains run, we’ve over the past three to four years have really done a good job of hardening our boxes, those electronic boxes so they’re not subject to the weather or even cold weather.  That’s has really been a large part of it.  As a storm comes in, we know where we have problem areas.  We work with the maintenance group to get them into those areas, but it has really been a three to four-year project that has culminated this year with not as many, knock on wood, incidents where we’ve had trees falling down.  I think we’ve only had two actual trees fall down this year.  One was in a parking lot, so it doesn’t count, right?  Only one that fell close to a wayside, did not strike a train so we were able to continue past that whereas in previous years you would have seen 10, 15, 20 trees down, especially with the heavy rain we’ve had in the past couple of weeks.”

BART rain

HOST: “I think it’s important to keep in mind too that there are so many moving parts in the system and you mentioned the track components, it’s easy to forget about that.  BART is a lot more than just the rail and the train cars there are a lot of moving parts here that keep everything working.”

EDWARDS: “That’s correct and most of them are electronic or electric-related, so we had to work every hard to weather proof them.  Again, I’m going to give credit to our maintenance department who has done an excellent job the past four or five years and then also our front-line employees.  Station Agents reporting that there’s an issue here and we’re very aggressive in getting those issues taken care of.  We used to have leaks into our train control rooms.  We had a program over the past year and a half that went out and replaced all of those roofs.  It’s time and effort but I think we’ve finally turned the corner and gotten there.”

HOST: “When you see that forecast that a big storm is coming, we’ve done the preparation work, from an OCC perspective we see the trains slow down when we get those really stormy conditions.  Tell me about that decision, how is it made and what does it take to make that call?”

EDWARDS: “It’s an automatic call.  For us, remember our fleet is one of the oldest in the country.  Quite frankly, even though it’s one of the oldest it has one of the better reliability rates right now.  One of the things we’ve done to keep that is when we know we have a storm coming in, especially the first storm of the year, but for all wet weather any inclement weather we put what we call a rain file.  At certain strategic points throughout the system what that does is it slows down the acceleration.  The train will still hit its ultimate top speed but what it does is it slows down the acceleration and deceleration, so we don’t get slip spin of the wheels where the wheels are spinning, grinding out our rails and what that does is that causes a flat spot on the wheel which means we would have to take that train out of service.  We really try to avoid conditions that would create that element.”

HOST: “In the Bay Area, of course, you have microclimates.  It’s going to feel a lot different in Walnut Creek or Antioch than it will in Daly City.  I would imagine that’s a factor.”

EDWARDS: “Those are factors as well.  Many times, you will have extremely, especially in the morning in the valleys of the East Bay, you’ll have extremely cold weather.  The other day you had snow in the Livermore hills so we’re having to deal with icing over there where as in San Francisco It’s mostly tunnels and then you get the fog out towards the airport it’s a different kind of weather.  Our operators are very good at reporting those deficiencies into central and if we can’t take care of it by dialing down the acceleration-deceleration we will send out maintenance crews to do some other work in that area.”

HOST: “So, it’s not necessarily one size fits all when a storm comes in.  We adapt based on the environment and where the conditions are occurring.”

EDWARDS: “That’s correct.  We have checklists which are very, very broad.  Generalized checklists to make sure you hit all your elements of what you need to observe and report but each situation it’s based on the experience of the managers and the controllers and the personnel within the control center and also our personnel wayside.”

HOST: “I would imagine safety is always at BART the top concern especially in dealing with inclement weather.  Talk about how that comes into play and I’m thinking even specifically about dwell times and allowing folks the extra time they need sometimes when the platforms are slippery.”

EDWARDS: “When the platforms are slippery we don’t necessarily shorten our door dwells in the scheduled but what we do is the operators are observing.  They know, and they see people coming down and they won’t just shut the doors, though I’m sure some people have had that experience in the past, but our operators are taught to observe and watch.  Now if we have a big group of people coming in that’s transferring from another train, we’ll hold those trains.  But for a typical door cycle, it typically is put onto the operator to watch, observe.  We don’t want people running, no one should be running across a platform whether its dry or wet to board our trains.  The operators should be observing this and leaving their doors open longer to let people board safely.”

HOST: “I’m speaking with Fred Edwards, the manager of the Operations Control Center here at BART.  Fred, from your perspective in the control center you’re watching the entire operation.  We’ve talked a lot about storm conditions, about the rain.  Are there any other elements that are cause for concern?  I know heat can cause some problems as well, it’s not just the rain necessarily that we’re concerned with at BART.”

EDWARDS: “Different weather elements give you different factors, right?  With heat it’s not necessarily the failure of the cars themselves but the heat causes our ribbon rail, our running rail, to sometimes kink if it’s extreme heat.  It can just be that in that spot the heat gets up to enough that it makes the heat swell and then when it gets cold or starts to cool down it shrinks again. That can cause some conditions in the rail.  We watch for those, when we see those we isolate, and we run around until we can get those items fixed.  But every weather condition, as you said before, we have a lot of microclimates and we have a lot of experience in understanding what part of our system as it’s spread out over 120 some miles has what kind of condition during what time of the year.”

HOST: “And I would think that’s important too is that experience and it really is a team response to these sorts of things.  Knowing what to expect and having had that experience to respond to all sorts of different situations I would imagine that pays off now.”

EDWARDS: “It takes a year for one of my Train Controllers to get certified to go from the process of being hired into BART to being certified and becoming a certified Train Controller.  It’s about a year process.  That doesn’t give them the experience.  It’s those other controllers that have been here for five, ten, 15 years that gain the experience.  We do lessons learned.  Just before you came into my office today I was doing a lessons learned for an incident that occurred yesterday.  We do look at our incidents, look at our failures and we try to learn from them.  We put those in a book and through our recertification process and our training process we review those lessons learned so those are passed down.”


HOST: “It’s interesting too that, especially when we get that wet weather, people really do count on us because nobody wants to drive in those sorts of conditions.  Not only are we dealing with the elements but a lot of times we can be dealing with more riders than usual.”

EDWARDS: “That is correct as well.  BART is an extremely reliable service.  Our average on time right now is 93 to 94 percent and we’re going to make that even higher as we continue on in the coming years with the new fleet that’s coming in.  What you will see is that people complain if we’re five to ten minutes late, which we promise we’re going to get you where you need to go within five minutes of the time we tell you you’re going to get there.  But as many of us know when you’re on the highway and it’s raining many times that hour ride or that 30-minute ride is extended by 15 minutes or 20 minutes the longer you have to go.  BART is a very viable alternative when there is inclement weather out and we do see an increase in ridership for that reason.”

HOST: “I’m sure you hear it, we all hear it from riders they want to ride us in the rain but there’s frustration because they’re late.  What do you want them to know?  What would be your message to those folks who have those concerns, what would you tell them?

EDWARDS: “We do run a slightly slower service so that we can get you there.  We don’t want to stress the equipment and have to take trains out of service.  Just like you don’t drive fast on the highway our trains slow down and don’t ride fast on the rails, remember steel wheels on a steel rail.  If you go too fast you get slip spin, which will cause wear and tear sometimes excessive that will take a train out of service.  We’d rather get you there, get you there safely than speed and break down everything and maybe not get you there so safe.”

HOST: “Fred, thanks very much for your time with this.”

EDWARDS: “Anytime, love having you.”

HOST: “Fred Edwards our manager of the Operations Control Center.”

HOST: “Now here’s the second part of our podcast with John Floris, the Superintendent of BART’s Vehicle Trouble Desk.

I’m now in the Operations Control Center and I’m speaking with John Floris who is the Superintendent of the Vehicle Trouble Desk here at BART.  John, thank you very much for joining us on the podcast.”

FLORIS: “Welcome, I’m glad to be here.”

HOST: “I think a lot of our riders may not know that BART even has a Vehicle Trouble Desk.  What is that and what’s your job here?”

FLORIS: “Well, we’re here to basically keep the trains on time.  If there’s a problem on a train the operator calls it in.  He talks to the supervisor and the supervisor listens to the complaint and if we can fix it over the radio we do.  If it’s a more serious problem we have mainline technicians stationed throughout the system and we’ll call a tech to go meet the train.  We pick it up as soon as we can.  Hopefully it’s just something we reset very quickly or cut out and keep the train on time.  That is our goal, stay on time.”

HOST: “And I would think a key to that is all the experience this team has.  You guys have kind of seen everything at this point and that’s especially important when it comes to dealing with the rain.  Here in the Bay Area obviously we need all the rain we can get.  But for BART it can raise some challenges.  Tell us what some of the issues are that come up when we see significant rain, the significant impact on our train cars when we have rain.”

FLORIS: “One of the biggest things that can happen are flats.  The wheels are steel wheels on steel rails.  If they lock up and slide, you’ll get flat spots on the wheel.  As the train goes down the tracks you’ll hear, ‘bump, bump bump, bump’ and it’ll get faster and faster as the train goes faster.  When that happens it pounds the rails, it can damage them.  We take the car out of service, take it in, and cut the wheels so they’re round again.”

HOST: “What are some of the other issues that can come up when it rains for our train cars?”

FLORIS: “Oh, gee whiz, the doors will have an issue.  The doors, when it’s raining, they get slow, just a little bit and that will hold us up.  Also, when it’s wet and raining it’s kind of cold we can have some suspension issues, which we can usually reset.  A tech will board up, we can cycle some circuit breakers and bring the car back up to where it’s level with the platform again.”

HOST: “Is this the sort of thing that happens commonly with railroads?  In other words, this isn’t necessarily something that’s unique to BART?”

FLORIS: “It probably is common to all railroads because most of them are suspended the way ours are.  So, yeah, I would say it is common.  We think we cover everything pretty well.  We go through and run a PM check on all the doors.  PM, preventative maintenance.  We verify all the doors are operating properly, we double check the windshield wipers.  Make sure they’re going to stay on the windshield because when the train is going 70 miles per hour and you get the wind blowing at it the wiper becomes very important.”

HOST: “I’m speaking with John Floris the Superintendent of the Vehicle Trouble Desk here in BART’s Operations Center.  We’re seeing more Fleet of the Future trains coming into service at this point, a lot of folks very excited about that.  But when it comes to dealing with these challenges when it comes to weather is there any difference between the new cars and the old cars?”

FLORIS: “I’d have to say night and day.  The Fleet of the Future are 21st Century, brand new.  The old cars, bless them, they were designed in the 60s most of them went into service in the 70s.  The technology change is night and day.  It’s going from a television where you have to walk across the room to change the channel to sitting in your remote and watching Netflix.  Night and day.  We don’t have the door issues with them and they’re more solid from the rails up.  We haven’t had the braking issues, we don’t have the propulsion issues.  We don’t have a lot of them on them on the property yet, but we haven’t had the heating issues, the air conditioning issues that we had with the old cars.”

HOST: “You guys really stay on tops of this when it comes to the Vehicle Trouble Desk.  I mentioned all the experience that goes into that.  How long have you been here at BART and gives us a sense for the team?  There really are a lot of folks that have been here and seen everything and had to respond to it.”

FLORIS: “Yes, I’ve been here 28 years now.  Came in in ’91.  I’ve got mainline techs that came here in the 80s, a lot that got here in the 90s, a few that got here in the 2000s but it’s a well-oiled crew.  They work well together it’s a great crew.”

HOST: “How does it work?  You guys are monitoring the trains, when you hear about a problem what happens?”

FLORIS: “When we hear there’s a problem whether it’s reported directly from the Train Operator or we just overhear the Train Operator telling the Train Controller about it we’re immediately looking to see where the train is, what it’s next station will be.  We will call the mainline tech either on the phone or the radio to make sure he gets out of his office and into position ready to go forward to meet the train.”

HOST: “The timing is critical, and I would think this is a case where literally seconds can matter in terms of the impact to the customer and that’s why it’s so important to have that rapid response.”

FLORIS: “It is important to have a rapid response and we pride ourselves on getting to the platforms as soon as we can.  Getting on that next train if we’re at 19th Street and we need to get up to Rockridge Station we’re waiting for that train to come in.  The trains run 15 minutes apart, if you miss this train all of a sudden that’s several stations where you haven’t been able to respond.”

HOST: “I know preparation goes into preparing the train cars but as an OCC staff you see a big storm is coming, how do you respond to that?  What sort of preparation do you do in terms of having the necessary personnel, having the mainline techs in position?  What happens there?”

FLORIS: “Pretty much there’s not a lot of change.  We’re always ready for whatever is going to come our way.  We don’t have to make special changes for the weather whether it’s hot, cold, we’re there for you.”

HOST: “John Floris Superintendent of the Vehicle Trouble Desk here in the Operations Control Center.  John, thanks for your time with this.”

FLORIS: “It’s been a pleasure.  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, Stitcher, and of course at our website BART.gov/podcasts.”