Managing an aging fleet of trains, BART has sometimes been tasked with manufacturing its own replacements for obsolete parts on trains and even occasionally resorted to buying hard-to-find components on eBay, according to transit agency officials.
BART Assistant Chief Mechanical Officer David Hardt said the agency has been forced to reverse engineer train parts that have been out of production for years, and he credits BART maintenance workers with finding innovative solutions that have made some of the old systems more reliable than when they were new. The agency recently touched on maintenance issues during a tour of the maintenance yard near the Colma BART station.
Hardt said the agency's resourcefulness is necessary because it operates the oldest fleet of its kind. The trains were built in the 1970s and '80s, and they still use onboard computers from that era to oversee their brakes, propulsion and automatic train control systems. In many cases, the chips, motherboards and related components have been abandoned by their original manufacturers, Hardt noted. On a few occasions, the agency has been forced to purchase such replacement parts on eBay, he added.
Noting that the biggest threats to components are heat, vibration and moisture, Hardt recalled how one BART employee suggested filtering the air used to cool the trains' motor control boxes. After technicians added air filters similar to those used on car engines, it provided cleaner air to the system that has allowed the equipment to work longer without needing repairs, Hardt said.
BART employees have also assisted in addressing maintenance issues by being vigilant and notifying supervisors at the first sign of mechanical trouble, Hardt said.
"These guys have aged along with the equipment," Hardt added. "They can spot these things long before our failure data would alert us to it."
In addition, data analysis plays a key role in the agency's maintenance effort, as closely monitoring train performance allows the agency to anticipate failures before they happen, Hardt said. Overhauling the trains' electric motors every five to six years, for example, has been one of the practices that has allowed BART to double its reliability over the past 10 years, Hardt noted.
BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost acknowledged the public perception that service delays in the system are on the rise, but she said most delays occur for nonmechanical reasons such as police activity, and the percentage of delays due to mechanical failure is being steadily reduced.
While the train fleet has continued to age in the past three to four years, the average length of time between delays has improved from 2,800 to 3,700 hours, Hardt said.
And relief is on the horizon, as the agency made an agreement last year to buy new, state-of-the-art trains. The design review process is currently being finalized for those cars, Hardt said, and they are expected to begin entering service in 2017.
Trost noted that along with modern electronics, the new trains will feature styling that is contemporary, yet inspired by the iconic look of the trains they're replacing. She said extensive outreach with riders revealed that the futuristic appearance of the original BART cars is popular with the public.
Some BART employees echo this sentiment. Vince Louie, a shop foreman at the agency's Colma repair facility, said the trains' sliding doors look like they belong on a "Star Trek" set. Louie said he takes great pride in the job BART workers are doing.
"Nowhere else will you find a train fleet older than ours," Louie noted. "And nowhere else can you expect an on-time rate of 98 percent."