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An Open Letter to BART: What's the Run-down on Evacuations?

Gar Smith
Friday October 21, 2016 - 01:05:00 PM

Dear Bay Area Rapid Transit System:

For more than 40 years, I've been riding BART and, like the other 430,000 passengers who use the 107-mile system on an average day, I occasionally find myself staring idly at the maps and safety placards posted in each BART car.

And for years, I have been puzzled by the illustrations accompanying the Evacuation Procedures poster. The instructions seem to invite "suicide by BART."

In the event of a train breakdown in the Transbay Tube, along the subway sections, or on the elevated structures, these omnipresent placards instruct passengers to: "Cross over to adjacent track and wait for rescue train."

Am I the only one who thinks this borders on lunacy?

Follow these instructions and you will wind up—like the rousted cartoon passengers in the posters' graphics—stuck in the middle of a train track or positioned directly alongside the rails. In either case, you will be left standing directly in the path of an oncoming "rescue" train.

When it comes to keeping passengers safe and secure at boarding stops inside its stations, BART's printed Safety Guide is quite clear:

"At stations, do not cross the tracks [or] walk on the trackways…."

This advice is considered so critical that it is the only portion of the Safety Guide printed in bold type. But when it comes to train evacuations between stations, different rules seem to apply.




Look familiar? Take a closer look. 

Why is it that passengers are instructed leave a disabled train by jumping from the safety of platforms and walkways to stand on the rails to await rescue? 

Why is standing on the tracks deemed a better option than having riders wait for rescue off the tracks? 

Wouldn't it be safer for passengers to simply chill on the walkways or linger inside the cross-passage spaces until a rescue train arrives? 

BART's advice for passengers stuck on its elevated tracks shows a single passenger standing to the side of the adjacent rails to await the "rescue train." Check out the size of the train parked on the adjacent track: It is clear that any passenger standing in the pictured position would be knocked for a loop by an oncoming train. 


Evacuating BART on aerial structures 

Presumably, whenever a train goes out of service, all BART traffic on the affected line is immediately halted—thereby assuring that no trains will run over any stranded passengers huddled between the rails and poking their smartphones in hopes of picking up a Wi-Fi signal. 

Was this "wait-on-the-tracks" option chosen because a full train might contain more passengers than could fit on the walkways or inside the connecting passageway? (Even if this were the case, why would everyone be instructed to assemble on the tracks?) 


Evacuating inside the Transbay Tube 

In the Evacuation Procedure poster, walkways are shown to be shoulder-high to the cartoon passengers standing on the trackway. Clearly, jumping down onto the tracks could pose a problem for the elderly, the handicapped, and children. Similarly, climbing back up onto the walkways would pose a problem for all but the most athletic commuters. 

BART's evacuation poster shows stairs inside the Transbay Tube connecting the train doors with the cross-passage doors. It is not clear whether these stairs give passengers access to the "adjacent tracks." If not, a jump would be required. 

Once evacuation is complete and a "Rescue Train" arrives (hopefully stopping well short of any stranded rescuees), passengers cooling their heels on the crossties would then need to clamber back onto the elevated walkways in order to enter the Rescue Train. Are ladders, steps, or stairs from the rail-bed to the walkways available throughout the BART system? The evacuation poster neither shows nor mentions any. 

Related question: Are Rescue Trains configured with steps and a front-facing door for use by passengers trapped between the rails and waiting to board from the trackway? 

Some Suggestions 

Proposal One: In order to clarify these questions, BART could produce an "evacuation drill" video and post it online. Airlines do it. Like the airlines, BART could even add some humor to the project. (BART's current online safety video warns about the dangers of escalators but says nothing about emergency evacuations.) 

Suggestion Two: Unless the disabled train is, say, engulfed in flames, wouldn't it make sense to simply let the passengers remain on the disabled train until a Rescue Train arrives? Under this option, passengers could relax and cross-commiserate—comfortably and safely—ensconced in their seats. 

A bonus: In the event of a breakdown on a stretch of outdoor track, riders would not be forced to hunker in the rain on a cold night, shivering and quietly blaspheming while awaiting rescue. 

Proposal Three: If a breakdown occurs near a BART station, allow passengers the option of safely "rescuing themselves." "Self-evacuation" has proven effective on at least two occasions. On March 9, 2015, passengers safely bolted from a train when smoke began to fill cars stopped between the Montgomery and Embarcadero stations. 

More dramatically, in June 2006, passengers en route to SFO revolted after a train hit some debris on the tracks and came to a halt between the Balboa Park and Daly City stations. After waiting 93 minutes, desperate passengers pried open doors, dropped four feet to the trackway, and began walking to the Daly City station, which was only 100 yards away. They were met by BART police who threatened to arrest them all but, after the BART train operator intervened, the travelers were allowed to walk to the station and flag down taxis for a $30 ride to SFO. 

BART has characterized "self-evacuations" as "dangerous," owing to the presence of a 1,000-volt "third rail." But this danger is well advertised and it exists regardless of whether or not an evacuation is officially recommended or spontaneous. 

BART's Online Safety Guide Is Also Off the Rails 

The online version of BART's evacuation guide appears to avoid the wait-on-the-tracks problem. To wit: 

"Go along the walkway and down the ramp to the nearest door, go through the passageway to the opposite trackway, proceed along the walkway [i.e., not the trackway] until people behind you have cleared the doorway. Wait for the rescue train." [Emphasis added.] 

At the same time, however, the online evacuation guide continues to lead evacuees astray, as follows: 

Instructions for abandoning a train in the Berkeley Hills Tunnel: 

"Go along the walkway or trackway to the nearest door, cross through the passageway to the opposite tunnel and walk along the tracks until the people behind you have cleared the doorway." 

Instructions for seeking safety in a Subway: 

"Cross through the passageway to the opposite tunnel and walk along the trackway until people behind you have cleared the doorway." 

Instructions for evacuating Elevated Tracks: 

"Walk on the tracks or walkway far enough past the train so that people behind you can also get a safe distance from the train." (Say what?) 

It turns out that BART actually does have an Emergency Evacuation guide that clearly instructs passengers to avoid the trackway and wait on the walkway for rescue. The only problem is, this poster does not appear to be on display anywhere in the BART system. 

Note: A letter expressing these concerns was originally sent to BART Customer Relations on April 27, 2010. To date, there has been no response.