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Visualizing the futuristic BART trains that are headed for Silicon Valley stations
Lauren Hepler | Silicon Valley Business Journal

 

By late 2016, Bay Area commuters will likely begin to see the first of a fleet of futuristic new BART trains barreling from San Francisco through the upper Peninsula, the East Bay and new stations slated to open in the coming years closer to Silicon Valley in Fremont, Milpitas and Northern San Jose.

Huge amounts of taxpayer money and the daily commutes of thousands of Silicon Valley workers hang in the balance with the planned expansion of the Bay Area Rapid Transit rail system into the heart of the region’s tech economy.

 

But for all the finagling it has taken to pull together the billions of dollars required for the initial extension of BART to the South Bay, not much attention has been given to the actual plans for how the system will look once it’s up and running.

 

Think of a cleaner, faster, quieter system that's more adaptable to commuting patterns that have shifted drastically in recent years amid rapid economic growth.

An interior rendering of the new BART trains designed to accommodate a mix of short- and long-haul riders, as well as periods of rush hour congestion where many people may be left standing. The new design features a mix of open seating in middle cars for people trying to get on and off quickly and end cars with more seating options for longer commutes.

The Atlantic CityLab this week took a deep dive into how BART’s $2 billion-plus plan to replace and expand its fleet of 669 train cars will stack up against transit systems in other major cities. The reasons for upgrading the trains — from concerns about cleanliness to loud ambient noise and capacity problems — are plentiful.

 

The story gets even more interesting (and complicated) when you consider how the new service to Silicon Valley fits into the picture. Panning out to consider the South Bay’s historic lack of efficient, centralized public transit options and perpetual highway gridlock, the stakes for improving the region’s transportation picture get even higher.

 

Aaron Weinstein, CMO of BART and point person on the redesign project, told me the primary driver for buying the new trains is pretty straightforward.

 

“Maybe just start with the age of the old fleet,” he said. “They’re becoming increasingly obsolete and hard to maintain. We have the oldest fleet of cars among big city train systems.”

 

Preventing mechanical failures and service delays is a major focal point of the push to add up to 1,000 new cars to replace the 1970s-era trains currently in service. The Atlantic pegs the average age of BART trains at 30.1 years old, compared to 26.3 years for Chicago’s CTA fleet and Boston’s average 21-year-old MBTA trains.

 

An initial batch of 775 new BART cars has been commissioned to roll out between 2017-2025 at a cost of $2.5 billion, with initial pilot rides expected to begin in late 2016, Weinstein said. The agency received feedback from a total of 35,000 consumers to assess particular areas for improvement.

 

With the chance to start over, BART prioritized: Modular seating arrangements designed to accommodate both short- and long-haul passengers; new HVAC systems that will pipe fresh air in through the ceiling instead of the windows; doors with noise-reduction technology; LED signs to better help customers find their way; on-board bike storage and surfaces that can be cleaned more easily than the system’s current ubiquitous carpeting.

 

Don’t expect the standard two-person bench seating found in existing cars, either. Researchers hired to observe the behavior of riders suggested more single seats and standing options as well.

 

“When they were watching BART riders sitting in those side-by-side bench seats, they were often leaning away from each other,” Weinstein said. “That body language was really a nugget of insight into what we might change.”

 

In addition to the new train designs, the transit agency is also in the process of upgrading its control process to run trains more frequently during peak hours, though extended hours are not planned.

 

Building BART for Silicon Valley

There’s one particularly interesting facet of the new plan to debut BART in Silicon Valley, complete with new trains: It’s not actually BART that will be extending BART into Santa Clara County.

 

Rather, the Valley Transportation Authority — with the support of local tax dollars, business groups and transit-oriented development advocates — has spearheaded the initial $2.3 billion, 10-mile extension of BART.

 

“It’s unprecedented,” said VTA spokesperson Bernice Alaniz of the separate transit agency’s starring role in building out another provider’s infrastructure.

 

Still, the somewhat confusing arrangement for VTA to build the new BART extension with a combination of federal, state and local funds before handing operations off to BART does make some sense in Silicon Valley. The Bay Area is already a jigsaw puzzle of disparate transit agencies, with Caltrain and Muni being two other very large providers in the mix. VTA alone oversees South Bay and Peninsula light rail, buses and helps manage Caltrain service.

 

In anticipation of BART's extended service into Santa Clara County scheduled to begin in 2017, VTA was responsible for financing about 60 of the new train cars, Alainz said. It's also worth noting that San Mateo County previously participated in a shared BART expansion project by anteing up to connect the rail system to San Francisco International Airport in 2003.

 

When it comes to the South Bay, major questions do remain about how an additional planned $4.3 billion, 6-mile extension to downtown San Jose will be financed. Assuming that project can amass the projected $2.3 billion in local tax dollars, $251 million in state funds $900 million in federal grant money, VTA would be responsible for procuring a total of closer to 100 new BART train cars to accommodate an anticipated uptick in ridership, Alainz added.

 

In the meantime, the construction project currently underway from the new Fremont Warm Springs station through Milpitas and into Northern San Jose’s Barryessa district is anticipated to begin revenue-generating service in late 2017, Alaniz said.