Podcast: A trailblazing woman who brought inclusion and reform to BART calls it a career

07.29.21

Podcast: A trailblazing woman who brought inclusion and reform to BART calls it a career

Tamar Pride

Transcript below:

HOST: "There are few people who can claim a career path like the one followed by Tamar Allen. Over a span that stretches across four decades Allen has worn many hats ranging from police officer to Assistant General Manager.  Allen has played a critical role in some of the largest projects in BART’s history including the $3.5 billion Measure RR rebuilding program and the procurement of the Fleet of the Future. But Allen’s legacy will be largely defined by the systemic change and reforms she brought to the district. Those efforts helped to usher in a spirt of inclusion and respect at BART that opened the doors of opportunity for many current employees.

I’m speaking with Tamara Allen, the Assistant General Manager of Operations here at BART who is wrapping up 39 years with the agency an incredible run and now ready for retirement. So first of all, congratulations with that, thanks for taking some time to speak with us."

ALLEN: “Thank you.”

HOST: “It's an incredible tenure, not just in duration, but the uniqueness of your career trajectory. I mean the agency was barely 10 years old when you first joined as a police officer, and then after several years you transitioned to a number of jobs. You were a Transit Vehicle Electronic Technician, you were a Forworker, Maintenance Supervisor, Shop Superintendent, Assistant Chief Mechanical Officer, Chief Mechanical Officer, Chief Maintenance and Engineering Officer, and ultimately your position now General Manager of Operations, you've been in that role since August of 2018. That's nine positions in a career in part that I would guess when you probably first arrived, probably couldn't have imagined that it would have unfolded the way that it did.

ALLEN: “That's correct, never would have imagined.”

HOST: “So talk about that transition that first job as a police officer, and then moving to a vehicle technician that really stands out. How were you able to make that jump?”

ALLEN: “Fortunately, BART had an upgrade program, and I applied and was accepted to it and went for a year of training in electronics.”

HOST: “Wow, was that something you were always interested in in terms of how trains work?”

ALLEN: “Absolutely not. In the funniest story of my career, I think this sums the whole thing up. There were nine of us that started the class I think there were four or five of us who finished the class. And the first day they had two professors who addressed us and one of them was very enthusiastic. He said, today is so exciting we're gonna learn all about AC and DC and I turned to the person next to me and said bisexual?” (both laugh)

HOST: “Where you started. As I mentioned, way back in 1982. Talk about how welcoming the agency was to you in the early days of your career and how your experience with that shaped your priorities as you moved through the organization and took on greater responsibilities.”

ALLEN: “That's a tough one to answer. When I came in as police officer in 1982 there weren't a lot of women in policing, but BART did have women in policing. The police force was slowly warming up to the idea of women. So, I think we had to work a little harder to prove ourselves. I feel very fond about the years I had there. I never intended for it to be a career. I actually joined the police force on a bet out of college. There were five of us who were good friends at UC Berkeley and we were very young and very idealistic, and we made a pact to go and try and liberalize what we saw as the last bastion of conservative society, the police departments. So, we made a pact to go in for five years. I didn't make the full five, but I got close. One of them spent his entire career there and the rest, kind of faded off and went and did other things.”

Tamar Cop

HOST: That's incredible when you think about it it's funny how life works. A bet made in college ended up being this 39-year career.”

ALLEN: “Correct.”

HOST: “That's incredible. As your position in this organization has changed several times talk about how inclusion has evolved in that time. You've been here for quite a while and you've seen it from kind of different positions, different perspectives. What's changed in all that time?”

ALLEN: “Everything, everything has changed. You know BART's a great organization I've been very privileged to be here. It's been great to me and my family, and I've enjoyed my time here very much. But it's a much, much different organization, and at a pivotal point in my career when I finished grad school, I was being recruited to go work in the private sector organizational structure, organizational change was my specialty, and I made a commitment to myself to stay at BART. I really believe that BART could be a different organization. I suppose in the mid-80s there was a sense of a very hierarchical organization. Extremely conservative and it was hard if you weren't part of that club to get ahead and I just envisioned something different. I envisioned a place where people could be very proud to be who they are in the workplace and to bring all their creativity and energy to work and where they would support one another and diversity would really be the strength of the organization and I thought that if we could move in that direction, we could create greatness, and I think we have.”

HOST: “I’m speaking with Tamar Allen, our Assistant General Manager for Operations. You mentioned your commitment to bring change to organizations. Here in 2021 the world is not the same as it was back in the mid-80s. Talk about some of the challenges that you ran into at the start with your efforts to bring this sort of transformation.”

ALLEN: “Well, my first day as a transit vehicle electronic tech I was sent to the Concord Shop, and the foreman who I was supposed to report to put his hand up to stop me and said, ‘just a minute you.’ He stepped out, he yelled racial slurs to two people he was summoning to the office, and they responded and came, and he gave them assignments and I was just mortified. I started working in the shop and within about two weeks I was surrounded by a bunch of men with big wrenches who said, ‘look we don't like outsiders, we don't like women, and we sure as hell don't like cops so you need to go or there's gonna be a horrible accident.”

HOST: “How hard was it to deal with that?”

ALLEN: “Well, you know luckily I had pretty strong skin, and I just pick up the biggest one and pushed him aside and said, ‘you know I'm really sorry you have a bad attitude maybe you'll get over it.’ And it was a tough three years I spent there. What was really amazing was years later I was in a different shop with people who had been there at the same time that I was in for the first time we were able to sit down and talk about what that experience was. And we all experienced that very similarly, very hostile, very hateful, and it impacted the quality of our lives beyond work. And for me that was really a learning moment that I wasn't experiencing this type of an environment in isolation that others also felt that way. And it really pushed me even harder to try and make BART a different kind of place.”

HOST: “What did those initial efforts work like, what were your initial goals?”

ALLEN: “My initial goals were to give people a voice and to engage them and figuring out how we can do the business that we do better. I think when people have a role in helping to create how we do the work they have skin in the game, and they really want to make what we do even better. When we first opened Daly City Shop I was one of the people who went over there right after the earthquake and got that place tooled up, hired up and started maintaining revenue vehicles over there, so that we could run the 24-hour service. It was really a great opportunity to get people coming in to say, ‘how do you want to set this up? How do we want to tool up, where do we want things, how do we want to do the work?’ So we did that and it created a different kind of environment. Later when I went over to the Richmond Shop as the superintendent, that was one of the things that I took with me that I think made that shop become the benchmark for the other shops. I really made it an effort to engage all of the workers in the shop to look at how do we do preventative maintenance, how do we do scheduled maintenance, how are we loading up the shop, what are we prioritizing, how can we do it differently? And we started doing things much differently than they've been traditionally done, and we started to have some really great successes in terms of car reliability and car availability. One of the things that we didn't have back in those days was a very good formal training program for new employees who came in and we were hiring up because we more than doubled the size of the fleet over there. As new employees came in all of us wanted to do something to ensure that they had what they needed to be successful. We did this thing which we called marriages. Wo we've got people who all of us agreed had great skills and we married them to new people and we've ribbed them and we kidded them and we had a great time with it. But it built a bond. It built a bond between the newer and the older employees and it built a bond between older employees who hadn't really gone out of their way to work together in the past. It created the human environment in which everyone could have fun but also understand that we're really trying to do something great.”

HOST: “It's a great example isn't it because you begin with the initial focus on inclusion and what you found is it led to innovation, and in fact it really started to impact morale, and that's a huge deal for an organization like this isn’t it?”

Tamar Briefing

ALLEN: “Absolutely.”

HOST: “I mean you look at the way things were then compared to now it's so striking because it's hard to imagine an organization in the Bay Area of anywhere for that matter, succeeding without diversity, without being inclusive. It's like you're closing yourself off to a certain talent pool and you're limiting yourself and the steps it seems that were taken back in the 80s during your tenure here and moving forward with it really laid the foundation for that future success. How important do you think it was to get that ball rolling then considering where we are at this point?”

ALLEN” What we did in Richmond in the early 90s was just the beginning and by the time, we were into the 2000s we figured out that we needed a much more formal process of change. We developed in the 90s through inclusion and doing things differently and giving people a voice and quite frankly hiring differently. I got a lovely email from a woman that I hired in the 90s, thanking me for that and acknowledging that her resume had bounced from one desk to another until it got to my desk and then I hired her, and she’s had a very, very successful career here and it really touched my heart that she said that to me. It wasn't just growing a more diverse work group and engaging them we also recognized that we needed some formal tools for change. Our documentation needed to be changed, the way work went through our sites needed to be changed, there were a lot of things that we needed to do. So, we started our strategic maintenance program and somewhere around 2005 we started conceiving of it probably two years before that, but we dove in. One of the things that we recognized with that and that really laid the foundation for what rolling stock is today which is I think the only ISO certified maintenance program in the United States, rail vehicle maintenance program and Dave Hardt and his team gets credit for that they've done a phenomenal job. But this building of the SMP program which was a much more formal change program, laid that foundation, and we understood when we started to do that that we didn't only need to make change below us with the workforce, we really needed to change the mindset above us with the executive managers and laterally across the organization with other departments that we would be dependent on, like procurement, for our success. We started really very slowly, recognizing that if you push people too hard, out of your comfort zone, that you would probably get a rebellion. We started with weekly meetings where we would bring people together and we would talk about a vision for what things would look like and we evolved to actual action plans and what we were going to do and implementing lean manufacturing principals, reliability centered maintenance. We brought in experts, and it was a huge effort, and it was for a lot of people in the organization a very threatening and very emotional journey. There were some huge rocks in the road that knocked us all down and we’d have to get up, brush ourselves off, and continue on our way. That really in my mind set the foundation for the change that's impacted other parts of the organization. Lessons that I learned there that I took with me when I went to Maintenance and Engineering and we were able to make changes, we've got a great team, they're phenomenal, they're knowledgeable, they're passionate, they're dedicated, and we were able to make fundamental changes very quickly. And I think that our ability to move fast there was directly related to the time and the deliberate pulling people along at all levels of the organization that we had gone through with rolling stock.”

HOST: “That patience really did pay off and then more change seemed to happen more rapidly.”

ALLEN: “Once you have an organization prepared for change and they understand the benefit of what they’re getting with the change it’s easier to move things much faster.”

HOST: “I’m speaking with BART Assistant General Manager Tamar Allen on the verge of her retirement after 39 years in the organization. Certainly, one thing that's changed I think many would think for the better in recent years is the relationship between management and labor at BART. I know many people in the Bay Area when they think about that relationship they think about work stoppages, they think about inconvenience, they think about rancor in the public space. But it seems like that has really changed, especially over the last few years. I know you've been very involved in that. Talk about where that journey has gone because it was in a bad spot not that long ago.”

ALLEN: “It was in a bad spot not that long ago but it hasn't been it hasn’t all of a sudden changed, it's been a process. I was smiling when you were asking that question because I was reflecting back I think to a strike in 96 or 97 and it was right in the middle of my transformational efforts and we had this wonderful energy with everybody working together and supporting one another and all of a sudden there’s a strike. We were all heartbroken and I remember being there at midnight, and just crying and hugging everyone as they left, and they hugged and cried me and my assistant chief on their way out. One person stayed behind and said, ‘you know, I always had this fantasy’ and I said, ‘well, what’s that?” And she said, ‘I always wanted to fly through the shop like Tinkerbell.’ So we strapped her up in a harness, put her on the crane, and sailed her through the shop.”

HOST: “Wow!”

ALLEN: “It was so much fun. But throughout that strike you heard about how much hate there was between management and the union, you know, I'm here to tell you that strike and the one after that we fed each other across the fence. If we cooked, we fed them, if they cooked the fed us. We had a rotation with managers who had to stay in the shop overnight alone and the workers were so concerned that I would have to stay there alone that they sent their older teenage children to stay with me so that I wasn't alone. I mean it was just a really loving environment so I know that the unions and management have had really difficult times, but I would challenge the characterization that is a horrible relationship. It’s been a difficult relationship with many challenges and improving that relationship has really depended on building trust. Trust doesn't come easily, and you can ruin trust very quickly. So, what I found that works for me. And I think right now I have a very good relationship with all the BART unions, in fact I’m having lunch with them in a week and am looking forward to it very much, is to be honest, to be transparent to not go with solutions but to go with the problems and call them and explain to them what we're struggling with and get them to help us come up with solutions because they've got great ideas. They can help if they're allowed to help and they can engage when they're engaged, and I really believe in them, I believe in the work that they do. And I think together we've been really successful and really powerful. It's my sincere hope that that continues long into the future.”

Tamar Headshot

HOST: “Especially in the last year in dealing with the pandemic, it feels like there's been this partnership between BART management and the unions to come up with solutions to some really challenging issues?”

ALLEN: “Absolutely I think that we did an outstanding job during the pandemic. We were able to extend all of the contracts for another three years. That's a huge deal for the region and for the employees and for management. We were able to keep everybody employed and to cut spending significantly. We were able to redirect resources to rebuild the infrastructure and we pivoted very quickly. We saw that we were probably moving into unchartered territory as early as January and by the time there was a shelter in place, we had a plan, and we were moving on it. Our union partners were right there with us, we were able to shift schedules, shift people from operating work to capital work and start getting a lot of upgrades to the plant which will benefit customers when they come back so it was really a great effort.”

HOST: “You've been involved in some new projects in your time at BART and one of them is the Fleet of the Future. Helping with all sorts of input, helping to design that. Talk about in the big picture, what a big deal it is for any railway to bring in a whole new fleet of vehicles.”

ALLEN: “It's a real big deal to any railway but it's a really big deal to a railway the size of BART. Somebody like New York City they buy cars all the time and buying new cars isn't as big of a deal for them. They have systems, they have knowledge, they have experience, right? For us, we kind of had to spin up for that and I think we did a really good job. We wrote a spec it was a very good spec, a spec that will result in an extraordinarily reliable, robust vehicle, which is what we sought to get. And then we had to get it under contract and that included auditing car builders all around the world and going to places that were running their equipment and talking to people who had experience maintain their equipment, and really narrowing down, what were the important features to us and then getting that through the contracting process. I think we did well. BART’s unique in some ways from other mass transit authorities our gauge is different. Our biggest difference for us is the weight of the vehicle and that actually precludes car builders from being able to bid on our project because our system was built by aerospace engineers and the arial structures weren’t made to hold heavy, stainless steel rail cars. Stainless steel rail cars would be great to maintain in terms of exterior appearance but we can't do that, we have to do aluminum cars. All of the different things that make our transit authority a little unique had to be considered in that vehicle. We were able to get it awarded and the cars have started coming in.”

HOST: “There have been delays compared with the initial reactions but is that even really surprising? Do you kind of expect, especially with complex vehicles like this with so many computer systems that there are going to be bugs and certainly you want to catch those as early as possible to fix the design going froward?”

ALLEN: “Absolutely. Whenever a transit authority buys new cars there are delays. It doesn't matter who the car builder is. We’ve done studies on every car and car builder and the types of delays they’ve had and the types of problems they’ve had. We have disrupted acceptance of our cars because we’re at a point in the project where it’s appropriate to push the car builder of a higher level of reliability on some problematic systems. We’ll get through those with the car builder, and we’ll start accepting cars again and the cars will be of a higher quality. If you look at Chicago and the problems they had with trucks or you look at New York and the problems they had with the doors it happens.  It’s a natural part of the procurement process. We need to get it right at this stage where 286 cars in it was time to start putting on the pressure and I think we’ve done that.” 

HOST: “And it's not like they're a unicorn anymore. It used to be, oh there's one Fleet of the Future train wow, but now they're all over the place. I know my personal experience just this week coming in from work every day I've had a Fleet of the Future train either coming in or going out from work. They're really out there in the system and they're becoming much more part of the BART experience.”

ALLEN: “Right now, they're more than 50% of the trains we run.”

HOST: “Speaking with Tamar Allen, Assistant General Manager for operations at BART. Another huge undertaking you were involved in is Measure RR. $3.5 billion to rebuild this system was approved by District voters back in 2016. Take us back five year, why was this such an urgent initiative, why was this needed so badly?”

ALLEN: “Our infrastructure and most of its components were at end of life and we were precariously positioned to be in big trouble if we didn’t start rebuilding. The fact that the voters recognized us as a good investment of their money and afforded us the opportunity to invest in this infrastructure was a lifesaver for BART and for the Bay Area. So, we have begun. I think we've spent just north of $900 million already. We've got 28 or 29% of the work scope completed that we intend to complete with Measure RR. We have invested heavily in the trackway. Customers and neighbors have recognized that with weekend shutdowns and the rebuilding of our crossovers. But we've also replaced more than 10 miles of rail per year since we've begun down this journey. We've done lots of work on our traction power system. 34.5 kV cables which run in parallel on every line in our system we're failing at an alarming rate and if we get both cables on any single line to fail, we’re in trouble. last night I was awakened by cold on the R Line, so we're actively engaged and making great headway with our RR efforts.”

HOST: “This work really is so important. It's not as exciting maybe for the rider on the surface like a new train car that I get to sit in and see and feel a lot of this work they never see at all, by design. But there are so many stories out there with other transit agencies that have had to shut down whole lines for months at a time. The hope has to be that this is the sort of work that will help BART to avoid a nightmare scenario.”

ALLEN: “That’s the intent. It's funny that you'd say that when I used to speak to people about the state of the plant, I used to always preface it by saying, ‘I get to talk about the very unsexy stuff,’ state of the plant. It is something that people generally would never think of. It's under you, carrying you, moving you and you're just totally not aware of it. But if it isn’t maintained and rebuilt then you don’t move. So, it's a great thing that it is and yes if you asked our maintenance spoken our engineers four years ago how should we do this the overwhelming majority said you should just close a whole line down for two years and let's rebuild everything or a year or whatever the time interval was. We had to work together to figure out how can we rebuild the plant and not have untenable disruptions to our customers. I think we've hit the sweet spot with that. I think people can tolerate weekend disruptions, I know we've had a falloff in weekend ridership, probably directly related to the impacts that we're creating to service. That's a short pain for a long gain.”

HOST: “It really is remarkable because I've been out to some of these construction sites and you see these worn wooden ties that are being replaced and you realize a lot of the equipment that's being replaced has literally been there since the start of service back in 1972. It's a testament to the original equipment it's still functioning but that's obviously not something you want to rely on in the years ahead.”

ALLEN: “No, and it was fun being out there and seeing 1972 stamped on the rail throughout the district and those old wooden ties, some of which were corroded and being able to change that. We’re replacing most of the old ties with concrete, there are some places where we’re going back with wood but the majority of locations we’re going in with concrete and we're expecting we’re putting in infrastructure that's going to last another 50 years.”

HOST: “You've mentioned the balancing act to do this work within a functioning railroad and trying to confine that impact to the weekends, and especially over the last year because of the reduced service hours what that translates to in terms of rebuilding is you have more wrench time, and it really is something that this agency has taken advantage of over the last year plus.”

ALLEN: “We did a presentation several years ago to the Board of Directors and it was called something like ‘An Hour isn't Hour,’ and what it was meant to show was the amount of maintenance time that we had at different locations in the railroad. After the last trains clear the core of downtown Oakland and start moving to the outer reaches, we closed down the railroad behind them. In the best-case scenario, once we have a crew set their truck onto the rails and drive to where they're gonna go and do the work and get their tools off best case they have an hour and a half to do their work. The farther out you get in the system that time gets diminished to half hour, 15 minutes, and it makes it very, very difficult to just do the routine preventive and predictive maintenance let alone any rebuilding. Giving us this extra time during COVID has been a godsend because it's all wrench turning time. The amount of time we need to get on the rails to get to the site doesn't change. So, every minute, that's given to us beyond what we had before is something that we can utilize to do work and we’ve been doing that.”

HOST: “Speaking with Assistant General Manager Tamar Allen. Is there a particular accomplishment or initiative that you're most proud of?

ALLEN: “I would say I've touched on the three that I'm the most proud of. When I went to Richmond Shop it was the lowest performing. We couldn’t get 50% of the fleet out on any day and it had been going on for years. Turning that around and making an environment where people there felt great about what they were doing and going to work and that meant a lot to me and, in many ways it's the highlight of my career because it was so personal. I was close with the people, and it was really a warm feeling. The whole effort that we did with RS&S to come with an entire lifecycle of maintenance form cradle to grave. We have it all scheduled what maintenance needs to be done when, what we need to invest. It’s really laid out smoothly and we didn’t have that with the old fleet. The M&E thing, I told you once before but years ago I was in a situation with the rolling stock crowd looking at the M&E crowd and we were shocked in that moment we recognized everyone over there was older, white male and we were pretty diverse. When I look at M&E today and the things they’re accomplishing and the team they have in place and it’s a very diverse team with people from all walks of life. They all bring so much talent, enthusiasm, and dedication to what they do and they’re doing great things. The speed with which they're accomplishing the rebuilding, the reengineering, the upgrading of the entire BART system is mind boggling. I mean, it's their credit, not mine, I just sit back and watch in wonderment of how great they’ve done. They’ve built a construction company within their department which could compete with any construction company. When we look at whether we're going to do that work inside or contract it out we're looking at how quickly we can get it done, how much it’s going to cost, what’s the reliability and the BART team is right there performing so those would be the highlights.”

HOST: “I think for a typical commuter they're very much in their kind of own zone. They have it timed many times down to the minute. They know when they're going to get their station, they know when their train arrives, they go on their way. They don't really think about the inner workings of BART or everything that goes into making that trip possible because it is a very complex process involving so many people as you mentioned. If there was something you'd want the typical commuters to know about BART that maybe they don't know about, what would that be?

ALLEN: “I want them to know that the men and women who work here are really decent, good people. They care, they're trying hard to do the best that they can. And, you know, a smile goes a long way, especially for our frontline folk. Station Agents, Train Operators, our station cleaning folks. They're out in the public and their job is hard. They're dealing with all of the social ailments that plague the region. And there's some expectation that they can miraculously make it all go away, and they feel bad themselves because they can’t. Just a kind word or a smile would really make a difference in someone’s life and I would really appreciate it.”

HOST: “What are you going to miss the most about BART?”

ALLEN: “I love the people of BART. Getting to know ATU and spend time with them I really appreciate all of the heart and passion they bring. All of the people that I worked with throughout the operations in SEIU and AFSCME and rolling stock, and M&E, and transportation. They’re good people, they’re really good people.”

HOST: “Tamar Allen 39 years of service at BART, our Assistant General Manager, abut to retire thank you so much for speaking with us but also thank you so much for all of your efforts and what you brought to this organization.”

ALLEN: “Thank you.”

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.”