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BART Says Short-Circuit Led to Train’s Tunnel Mishap

| December 5, 2013
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Oakland firefighters and passengers from stricken BART train mingle on platform at Rockridge Station. (Scott Bloom).

Oakland firefighters and passengers from stricken BART train mingle on platform at Rockridge Station. (Scott Bloom)

Update, 10:30 a.m. Thursday: BART’s offering more details of the Wednesday incident in which a train stopped abruptly in the Berkeley Hills Tunnel when a brake malfunctioned. Transit agency spokeswoman Alicia Trost says a short-circuit in an emergency brake on one train car caused the brake to deploy while the San Francisco-bound train was traveling 70 mph between the Orinda and Rockridge stations. An apparent cloud of brake dust in the tunnel immediately afterward led 11 people to be treated for breathing problems and other issues when the train reached Rockridge, in North Oakland. Nine of the 11 were hospitalized; none had life-threatening injuries.

Trost told KTVU the car involved in the incident is 40 years old and had undergone comprehensive maintenance in late October and in August.

She also told KTVU the brake problem isn’t a new issue:

Trost said BART had problems in the past with their train cars’ experiencing shorts in the brake systems. This year, there have been three similar incidents.
“It used to be a huge problem about a decade ago, but they did some fixes to the brake box and now it happens only very rarely, unfortunately today,” Trost said.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Cabanatuan offers this context for Wednesday’s episode:

But the system’s aging trains – with an average tenure of more than 33 years, with many older than 40 years – are the most common reason for delays.

A Chronicle analysis in 2012 of delays lasting 15 minutes or more found that troubles with trains were responsible for 25 percent of delays. Brake failures were a leading cause, along with problems with propulsion systems, automated train controls, doors and electrical systems.

“It’s part of our investment needs,” Trost said. And while the transit system has ordered a new fleet of rail cars and has plans for a new train-control system and rail-maintenance facility, it will need billions of dollars more for upkeep and modernization of the system.

The transit agency will probably ask voters, many of whom are growing increasingly frustrated by BART’s plethora of problems, to approve new taxes or bonds to pay for those improvements.

Update, 1:10 p.m.: The latest tally on passengers hospitalized in this morning’s brake dust (not smoke) incident: 11. That comes by way of the Bay Area News Group, which cites Oakland Fire Department Battalion Chief Melinda Drayton. None of those hospitalized in the incident suffered life-threatening injuries.

Here’s the most recent Bay City News summary of the incident:

The incident started around 8:20 a.m. when a parking brake deployed in error on a train bound for San Francisco International Airport on the Pittsburg-Bay Point line, according to BART spokesman Jim Allison.

The train became disabled, blocking the tracks, and a “brake dust” filled some of the cars, BART spokeswoman Luna Salaver said.

“There was absolutely no fire on the train,” Salaver said.

There were 600 to 700 passengers on the train at the time, and they were in the Berkeley Hills tunnel until the mechanical issues were resolved and the train began moving again about an hour later, Allison said.

Update, 11 a.m.: BART now says that service is resuming through the Berkeley Hills Tunnel after a closure of more than two hours. The transit agency says passengers should expect delays of 15 minutes or so as service on the line from Bay Point to San Francisco International Airport gets back to normal.

BART says the apparent smoke in the incident was not smoke at all, but brake dust. The dust was apparently emitted after a parking brake malfunctioned and deployed while the affected train was headed west through the Berkeley Hills Tunnel.

Update, 10:45 a.m.: Rick Hurd and Harry Harris with the Bay Area News Group report at least five train passengers have been hospitalized after this morning’s BART incident:

Several BART passengers reported a stressful wait and poor communications after the train, which was running on the Pittsburg-Bay Point line, stalled around 8:30 a.m. A parking brake had deployed and kept it from moving while it was in the Berkeley Hills tunnel between the two stations, according to BART spokesman Jim Allison.

Woman being treated with oxygen at Rockridge BART station. (Jane Tyska)
“Everybody was trying to stay calm,” said Kaylee Adams of Walnut Creek, who was on her way to work in San Francisco. “We were trying to help each other out. It was scary. I was in the first car, and it was really stinky.”

A BART technician was able to correct the problem, and the train eventually was moved on its own power into the Rockridge Station, where waiting passengers already had been evacuated from the platform, Allison said. The train’s passengers were evacuated at 9:34 a.m.

Update, 10 a.m.: BART has reopened the Orinda and Rockridge stations for what the district describes as “very limited” service. From Orinda, that means trains are only running on the Pittsburg-Bay Point line east of the tunnel, with no service to San Francisco. From Rockridge, no service is yet available through the Berkeley Hills Tunnel to Contra Costa County.

Update, 9:50 a.m.: KTVU and other sources report that paramedics are treating at least 10 passengers from the disabled train for smoke inhalation, and more are being triaged.

Update, 9:40 a.m.: BART’s reporting major delays on its Pittsburg-Bay Point line due to a crowded San Francisco-bound train that was halted in the Berkeley Hills Tunnel because of smoking brakes.

BART crews managed to move the train out of the tunnel to Oakland’s Rockridge station just after 9:30 a.m. Firefighters and paramedics were awaiting the train amid reports that some passengers had complained about smoke inhalation.

The source of the smoke was unknown, but reports from various sources say it came from brakes on one of the train’s cars.

This morning’s incident is the latest in a string of mishaps for the transit system, including a partial shutdown of the Transbay Tube last week because of debris on a track. On Nov. 22, all service was shut down during the early morning commute because of a systemwide computer malfunction. And in late October, an eastbound Pittsburg/Bay Point train caught fire at the Orinda station, forcing a commute-hour evacuation and slowing service for hours.

Those incidents, along with a continuing contract dispute between the agency and its unions that triggered two strikes earlier this year, has prompted widespread criticism of the system among riders.

Earlier post: The agency announced it was evacuating the Orinda station, east of the stranded train. Media reports say the Rockridge station, the first stop west of the tunnel, has also been evacuated. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Trapper Byrne reported via Twitter that some passengers on the train were complaining of smoke inhalation and that firefighters were boarding a rescue train in Orinda.

The Chronicle’s Henry K. Lee reported:

The incident was reported on a westbound Pittsburg/Bay Point BART train about 8:45 a.m. The transit agency reported that there was an equipment problem on a train.

Many Oakland Fire Department fire trucks and engines were meeting the train at the Rockridge BART Station. The cause of the smoke is under investigation.

Commuters on the line should expect delays of about 20 minutes in both directions.

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About the Author ()

Dan Brekke has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.
  • Haythem Fahima

    I was one of the passengers on Bart today. The Bart came to a full stop between Orinda and Rockridge in the tunnel and we did not know what was going on. We began to smell smoke yet we were not being informed of any problems. It was not until the electricity went out for 20 to 30 seconds before the smell got stronger and we still were not informed of anything. Soon after that people began having medical issues. This all happened within the first 20 min of the smoke beginning however, once again we were not informed of any problems! Then we notice the Bart conductor running from one car to another and she did not inform us of what was going on. We were stuck inhaling smoke for over an hour while trying to assist the people that needed medical attention. There were a 2 or 3 women that could not even walk and they were being informed to go from one end of the Bart train to the other on multiple occasions. For all of the money that these Bart employees have been fighting for and putting us through two Bart strikes they sure do not know any of their emergency or evacuation procedures. Instead of being calm and collective the Bart conductor was more freaked out than many of the passengers. Today I was able to see firsthand how bad Bart’s operating and training system truly are. Instead of spending money on training and ensuring their equipment is fully functional they are spending money to give people raises that they truly do not deserve!