A Look Inside BART’s Operations Control Room

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday April 14, 2006

“This is where it all begins,” said Jim Allison, BART spokesperson, as he pointed out the Operations Control Room (OCC) at the Lake Meritt station on Monday morning. 

The OCC was the first stop during the two hour tour of the BART control systems; the second was its headquarters in Oakland. 

On a typical day in the OCC, Ben Williams Jr. and his counterparts are on the “hot seat.” If any of the 669 trains traveling at a average of 36 mph and carrying 326,500 weekday passengers faces a bump, jolt, or threat, the OCC managers in the hot seat try to solve the problem as quickly as possible.  

The train controllers come next. The people who direct technicians to various trains in case of an emergency are referred to as “Tango One.” 

“That’s because each technician in the field has a number designation, as in Tango 24 or Tango 13,” Allison explained. “Tango One” is always in direct radio control with the train operators. 

“Power Control” is in charge of controlling electricity. “Comm Specs” is in charge of traffic, and announcements and “Power and Way” is responsible for delivery of electricity to the third-rail tracks. When the trash fire occurred in the Embarcadero station last month, the electricity was turned off immediately. 

Had there still been 1,000 volts of electricity running through the third-rail track, it would have proved fatal for the hundreds of passengers trying to get out of the train and walk along the tracks. 

“Self evacuation was what made it a really serious situation,” Allison added. 

In case of a minor problem with the train or incidents like shooting, the train is moved to the maintenance yard. Allison said that “when required, everyone inside the OCC turns into problem solvers.” 

With its many flickering lights and symbols, the two main control boards inside the OCC looks like a scene straight out of Star Wars, but the fact of the matter is that both boards serve a far more important purpose—they are BART’s lifeline.  

When a “network switch problem” occurred on March 29 at exactly 5:40 p.m., a third or almost half of the two main boards blacked out and people in the control office had no way of knowing or seeing where the trains were.  

“The network switch, which brings all communications into central, became overloaded with information and shut down,” Allison said. “It was then necessary to bring the trains into ‘road manual’ and bring about a complete service halt. Although the switch is an industrial grade switch and shouldn’t have performed like this, our preliminary analysis indicates that work by BART staff contributed to the overloading and subsequent shutdown of the switch.”  

BART is currently operating on the older version of the software while trying to analyze the cause and correction of the software problems. 

Any pauses in the system for more than five minutes is considered a “delay” at BART. In the last year (April 2005-April 2006) BART has had a total of eight delays out of 200,000 rides.  

More than 3,000 BART employees work around the clock throughout the year to ensure that there are no service delays—given that the whole system is so complex, it’s no easy task. 

Allison acknowledged that funding was one of the main problems BART faced at the moment. 

California is an automobile culture, he said. 

“We at BART are constantly fighting for money,” Allison said. “There are 600 cars that need to be replaced—outlining a plan that will help us get the money for it is not easy.” 

According to Allison, BART funding depends on what its passengers pay more than any other transit system in the country.  

Some of the challenges that BART faces in the future are: 

• Securing the necessary funding to meet the district’s multitude of security needs. 

• Maintaining balanced budgets in an environment of limited revenue growth while facing uncertainties such as future power costs, capital needs, security requirements, and added costs of maintaining a complex and aging system. 

• Developing a comprehensive improvement program and funding strategy for the second generation renovation program, which will likely emerge as the most ambitious, complex and costly capital undertaking by BART since the construction of the original system.  

BART’s 10-year next generation renovation program includes five major areas of focus. Among them is the 10-year $1.6 billion Earthquake Safety Program to seismically reinforce the Transbay Tube, BART’S nearly 200 aerial structures, stations and other critical structures. 

In the event of an earthquake, BART has its own emergency preparedness plan which can be put into action immediately. BART officials will be converting a seismically safe undisclosed subterranean area complete with computers, radios and telephones into a control center. 

“An entire wall will have a board outlining exactly where officials would have to be dispatched,” Allison said. “Planning would be done to assist people for the next twelve hours and engineering crews would be brought in to assist the damage. There will be constant updates to the media.” 

BART also continues to advocate for security funding for detection and prevention, safety enhancements and operational response strategies that would ensure BART’s safety for its riders, he said..