The issue that closed a popular station began last week when 50 cars had to be taken out of service after they were hit with a power spike.
(TNS) — As BART struggled Friday to understand why electrical surges on a stretch of rail in Contra Costa County had sent scores of broken trains to the repair yard, officials warned frustrated riders that service to the popular Pittsburg-Bay Point Station was likely to remain shut down through at least Monday.
Even when the end-of-the-line station reopens, officials said, the loss of the crippled trains will mean delays and more crowded rides for several weeks — though they revealed an unusual plan to speed the recovery by stripping parts from a handful of cars in order to revive many more.
The announcements came as BART passengers on Friday endured a third day of delays — made worse by police activity and unrelated glitches — and as those needing to travel between the Pittsburg-Bay Point and North Concord stations were forced to ride emergency buses arranged by the transit agency.
It remained unclear when the electrical problem that is knocking out train cars will be fixed. BART ramped up its investigation by sending a pilot train filled with test equipment — and experts from as far away as the East Coast — through the trouble spot in an effort to pinpoint what was going on.
That mysterious nature of the problem only further infuriated some commuters.
“I hate BART,” said Kisha Younger, a 29-year-old legal secretary who works in downtown San Francisco and wasn’t able to get a seat on a standing-room-only train Friday morning as she usually does after boarding in Richmond. “It costs me $10 a day, and all their trains are raggedy. It seems like everything is always broken, and the prices for tickets keep going up. With however many thousands of people ride every day, it makes you wonder where all that money goes.”
The issue that closed the Pittsburg-Bay Point station began Wednesday when 50 cars had to be taken out of service after they were hit with a power spike as they moved through a track crossover north of the North Concord Station. The surge shot up to 2,000 volts of power through some of the cars’ vital components — twice what BART expects for normal operations.
The surge, while posing no safety risk for riders, caused a semiconductor device called a thyristor to fail. BART said the parts — which are critical to each car’s propulsion system — cost $1,000 apiece and are difficult to acquire. BART has 669 total train cars in its fleet and is supposed to be running 579 during a typical weekday commute, but on Friday was down to 521 cars in service.
BART officials said Friday that they will be able to put many of the affected cars back in service within “several weeks” by temporarily taking eight to 10 working cars offline and harvesting their thyristors. Some cars have five thyristors, so disabling one by stripping its thyristors can resuscitate up to five others.
In the meantime, riders should expect delays and shorter, more crowded trains. BART could not estimate when the Pittsburg-Bay Point Station will open, but warned that riders should not expect it to open by Monday.
“If we’re able to identify the problem before then, that’s great news, and we’ll put train service back in place,” said BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost. But “I can’t guarantee anything. We’re doing everything we can.”
Trost said typical troubleshooting techniques had so far failed. She hoped Friday’s tests, with new equipment and additional expertise, would help isolate the cause of the problem.
“It’s something we’ve never experienced at BART,” she said. “We have to look outside the box. What we usually use to find problems and fix them isn’t working.”
A similar problem occurred in late February in West Oakland when voltage spikes near the Transbay Tube damaged some 80 cars. Most of those cars have been repaired, but some remain out of service. Trost said BART was able to “stabilize” the situation and keep cars from being knocked out of service in West Oakland, but was not able to figure out the cause.
BART has newly built electrical substations near both the West Oakland and North Concord train stations, but Trost said engineers don’t believe the substations are to blame. When BART has shut down the substations, she said, the problem has persisted.
Ridership was down slightly this week, Trost said, with just over 446,000 riders — or 5,900 fewer than usual — taking trips on Thursday. As of 11 a.m. Friday, the system was seeing roughly 5 percent fewer trips.
BART’s equipment problems come as the Metro system in Washington, D.C., deals with even greater scrutiny after officials there were forced to implement a complete emergency shutdown on Wednesday for safety inspections. Metro is the midst of a $5 billion program to rebuild a 40-year-old system that has been plagued by equipment failures, delays and derailments.
Kevin Heaslip, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, noted similarities between the plight of BART and Metro, which are both more than 40 years old and use similar technology, which was the newest state-of-the-art at the time both systems were built. The Metro system has seen a number of “smoke incidents” over the past year because cable coverings throughout the system are wearing away, exposing naked wires and sometimes causing fires to spark up.
“Preventative maintenance is not being done,” he said. “This is something that’s happening in Boston, D.C. and San Francisco. Funding is not at a level where they can sustain operations and maintenance.
“It’s not things that happened today or yesterday — it’s years of being backlogged and behind on maintenance issues,” Heaslip said. “It starts to have a domino effect where one problem leads to another problem, and all of a sudden you’re shutting down the whole line — or in the case of D.C., the whole system.”
BART’s crisis comes as its leaders plan a $3.5 billion bond measure on the November ballot to pay for fixing tracks, power systems, stations and other structural and mechanical systems. BART’s 10-year capital improvement program, which covers maintenance and construction, identifies $9.6 billion in needs and only $4.8 billion in anticipated revenues.
As the delays stacked up Friday morning, passengers piling out of cars at Montgomery Street Station in downtown San Francisco were frustrated. John Christensen, 46, a Danville resident who rode in from Walnut Creek, said the trains were much more packed than usual.
“It was way more crowded, and it seemed like the trains were spaced farther out,” he said.
Christensen was surprised to hear that service could be impacted for an extended period of time, and said he was considering driving to one of the BART stations in Dublin in the future, taking extra time on the road in a bid to avoid the crowds by boarding at or near the end of the line.
“It was packed today, and it’s a Friday,” he said, noting that the week’s end usually sees lighter crowds. “I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like on Monday and Tuesday.”
By the Friday evening commute, riders were ready to take matters into their own hands. A train headed toward Contra Costa County was about to go out of service because of another maintenance issue, this time a rubber door seal that had come loose at Powell Street Station in San Francisco.
Frustrated passengers quickly rallied, at the driver’s urging, in a bid to wrestle the offending door shut.
John Bruno, a regular passenger from Concord, finally spotted the problem, and for the next three stops he assumed the role of door-closer until BART got a maintenance worker to jump on in Oakland and lock the mechanism.
“I just wanted to get home,” Bruno said. “I’ve been on a train before when they took it out of service, and it looked pretty simple.”
Chronicle staff writer Brandon Mercer contributed to this report.
©2016 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.