BART aims to tame noisy trains 

click to enlarge BART
  • Alex Leber/Special to The S.F. Examiner
  • Noise levels can hit 90 decibels on BART trains, enough to impact hearing with sustained exposure.

BART trains arrive on time for about 95 percent of their trips and new seats reduce the chance of riders having to sit on stain-ridden cloth seats. But passengers still have to contend with the screeching, shrieking and whining noises that accompany a journey on the train system.

Fortunately for the riders, BART is going through significant pains to reduce the noise levels on its train system — initiatives that should also benefit residents who live close to the train tracks.

Yolanda Ramos, who travels every day on BART between the Peninsula and downtown San Francisco, said she's unfortunately come to expect loud noises on her commute.

"It would definitely improve my experience if it was less loud," Ramos said.

Noise levels vary around the system, but on average they range from 70 decibels to 90 decibels, according to Carlton Allen, chief engineer at BART. That is well within the requirements set by the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but hearing can suffer at sustained exposure above 90 decibels.

Most of the noise emanating from BART's network is a result of corrugations — or imperfections, mainly along curved areas — on the system's rails. To deal with that issue, BART spends about $1 million a year on rail grinding — a process that smooths out the trackway, according Allen.

But because grinding can reduce the lifespan of a trackway with its wear and tear, the agency is focusing on new tactics to reduce corrugations, Allen said. Those include adjusting the stiffness on its rail pads, reducing friction through lubrication methods and adding dampers — essentially shock absorbers — that help reduce vibration on the trackway.

Allen said ongoing research into the noise abatement measures will further influence what methods the agency will pursue and how to fund them.

While BART passengers are exposed to loud noise levels, particularly along open stretches — doubling speeds means doubling the noise — nearby residents also must deal with the sounds. Allen said the main challenge for the agency is dealing with the increasing amount of citizens who elect to live near train stations in the Bay Area.

"Many areas that were sparsely populated in the past have been developed, bringing more people closer to the BART trackways," Allen said. "When people buy new houses or condominiums, they don't often expect the accompanying noise from BART."

Tom Radulovich, BART's board president, said it's important for the agency to reduce noise levels if it wants to keep attracting people to sustainable transit-oriented development projects.

"We want people to live near BART, but BART hasn't been a good neighbor," Radulovich said.

He said that investing in the measures should be a priority for BART.

"Noise is one of the chief complaints I get from riders," Radulovich said. "These investments could benefit not only our passengers but local residents."

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Will Reisman

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