New BART traincars are kind of a big deal

Firstly - Happy Halloween!

Secondly - yay for the new BART train cars! Yesterday I made the trek from San Francisco to El Cerrito Del Norte Station (my grandparents' old station) to see the new "Fleet of the Future".

Frankly, the seats were really nice AND practical. Note the depth of cushioning. We could have declined to plastic seats. Image: Brian Stokle / Urban Life Signs
Although the new train did not move it moved the soul of this here transit advocate and enthusiast. I arrived at 11 AM - well after the prescribed start time - thinking I wouldn't get the toy train car. Luckily the woman in front of me told me that she really wanted a train car for her autistic son. A BART employee had assured her, moments earlier, that everyone would be getting squishy new toy fleet of the future train cars. And sure enough we all did! The atmosphere while waiting was full of effervescent anticipation. Sure I'd glanced at the train on my way into the station, but getting to actually walk into it was.... almost a religious experience.

Ok - it wasn't quite religious, but it was great. (Seeing the first viaduct pillars of the California High Speed Rail system in Madera County was a religious experience.) Remember, I'm a guy who's lived in three big cities - New York, Paris, and San Francisco. I've seen new train cars both in Paris and New York. So I was expecting something nice, but not profound. What I saw was a tad short of profound. So very good.

Many people waited in line to see the new train cars. Not sure if it was more for the toy or seeing the cars. Image: Brian Stokle / Urban Life Signs
Taking the escalator up, past the Del Norte mosaic walls, and then being greeted by BART ambassadors at all 9 doors of the three car train was a nice and welcoming touch. The first thing you notice is the train color is really white, but that will change with time.

Upon entry it's the seats in their bright blue and green that I noticed. I had to sit in them. And they are very comfy while being made of some miracle material that appears easy to wipe. Just the right amount of padding without swallowing you yet also seeming to be a durable padding.
Me holding my new BART "toy" at the center of the train where no pole exists. Note there are more straphangers at the center.  Image: Brian Stokle / Urban Life Signs
The three door configuration, although not complicated and nearly universal in other metro systems, seemed natural and not amazing - but I think we'll sense how great it is with how fast folks will get on and off trains.

Regarding seat configuration - there are two options. Both options have a pair of wheelchair locations at the center door with no center poll to ease access in and out for for wheelchair users - especially on a crowded train. At another door, there is a full compliment of seats - no open space for a bike or other large objects. A the opposite end door is where there are two prototype designs:

  1. A designated bike space with three bike holder-type things - apparently inspired by a Dutch train bike holder design. Bikes need to be parked alternating with the center bike having its back to the holder/clamp while the two outside bikes put their front wheels in.
  2. A flex space, very much like today's bike parking, where folks can park their bike, or a stroller, or large luggage. For bikes a strap may be available to hold down the bike.
New three bar center poles. Man in green jacket is standing next to "flex" space where bikes, strollers and large luggage can be placed. Image: Brian Stokle / Urban Life Signs
Personally I favor the flex space. BART trains carry people, wheelchairs, bikes as well as strollers, luggage, PA systems and who knows what else big and bulky someone might bring on. I say go flex. 

I spoke to BART Board Director Mallett - who also supports the flex space. It was nice to see both him and Director Saltzman greeting folks on the train. In addition, a whole array of other BART staff were on hand - BART train operators, BART planning staff and more. Even BART General Manager Grace Crunican was on hand!

Even two of the train interior designers were on hand for my super detailed questions, which were both answered!
  1. Did BART explore "open gangway" train cars where the entire train or at least several train cars are essentially one long train car without doors separating each train car. Why didn't BART buy them, especially with their added capacity?
  2. How did BART come to its compromise with the seating/bike space/wheelchair space compromise?
Open Gangways Train Cars
Open gangway train cars are becoming more common. Some of the first ones were in the Singapore metro system from the 1980s. Some Paris Metro lines and London Overground trains have open gangways, and I'm sure other systems have them.

A video I took while on the Paris Metro Line 1 leaving Bastille Station. Note the bendy curves (and my 3-yr old daughter's musings). Video: Brian Stokle 

Open ganway traincar in Singapore. Image: Jonathan Chiang/Getty Images via Slate
By having essentially one train long train car that bends, the train feels more like a long bendy room. This adds capacity - you can stand "between" cars even though it doesn't feel like you're between them - and it adds safety as the "room" of the train is larger, so the train feels like a larger community and consequently is a bit safer.

Unfortunately, as Aaron Weinstein at BART told me, if BART were to have purchased open gangway train cars - say 2 or 5 car sets, if a single train car in the 5-car open gangway set broke down - the entire 5 car set would have to go out of operation. Today, with separate train cars, only that single train car gets pulled for maintenance. Similarly, at the maintenance facility a single train car pit would not do like it does today. If 5-car sets were purchased, a 5-car repair pit would have to be built. This would be a capital cost that would be a bit pricy to build even though there'd be some benefits. 

In the end I feel ok that BART didn't buy open gangway train cars, even though they're exciting, fun, and have benefits. It's hard enough for BART to buy new train cars - so I'm glad we're getting new ones even if we don't have open gangway ones.

Traincar Layout
Apparently BART did an extensive outreach process of getting feedback on how to layout its train cars. I even remember sitting in a prototype pretend train car that showed how the layout might be a few years ago. What BART staff told me was that when BART got feedback from folks with disabilities (folks who are blind, those that use wheelchairs, visually impaired, the ambulatory disabled) that the majority were ok with the pole in the center between doors. However when they looked at only the responses from folks using wheelchairs, they did not agree with the pole. 

So the decision was made, and supported by several disability advocacy groups and BART's disability advisory board (I don't know its official name), that designating the center doors for wheelchair locations and not at the side doors was the best compromise that worked for all BART users. We'll see how it plays out in action when the first train rolls out for service in a few months.

Lastly, I want to comment on the system maps. They're now part of a dynamic illuminated map that shows where the train is in the system at that moment, in addition to highlighting the route you're on, the next station and what the end station is. This will really help folks know where they're going and if they're getting off at the right station.
New dynamic BART system map with next stop listing (upper right), and message board (lower right). Image: Brian Stokle / Urban Life Signs
Train location is noted by a moving arrow. Not sure why the orange line appears to look yellow. Image: Brian Stokle / Urban Life Signs

Can't wait to right the first train in service. Apparently the real wonder of the new trains isn't anything I mentioned above. It's how super quiet the trains are. Sounds divine. 

Headshot of new BART train car. Looks pretty attractive. Image: Brian Stokle / Urban Life Signs


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