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BART’s New Diesel-Powered Trains Resemble ‘Streetcars on Steroids’

The new 10-mile line in Antioch represents a big change in BART technology.

by Steve Rubenstein, San Francisco Chronicle / July 1, 2016

(TNS) — The biggest thing to hit Antioch in some time was the arrival on Thursday of a spiffy new BART train that, like many BART trains, wasn’t running.

That’s because the new Antioch extension won’t open for another year and a half. But BART was in a celebratory mood anyway, because the new test train for its perpetually under-construction Antioch line had arrived from the Swiss factory on time, and on-time arrivals for BART are not a sure thing.

BART directors and their invited guests — a congressman and a handful of mayors and county supervisors — were plenty excited just to walk through the new test train, listen to the whistle blow, and marvel at such features as windows and seats that have not yet been vandalized.

“What a thrill to see these beautiful cars,” said Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton. “I hope this will relieve traffic on Highway 4, make the air cleaner and bring people home to their families sooner.”

McNerney took a turn sitting in the operator’s seat, fingering the controls but taking care not to operate any levers than would propel the train westward through his district ahead of schedule, as there was a red railroad signal just ahead. All along the Highway 4 median, where the extension will operate, workers continue to ready the track and the new stations at Antioch and Pittsburg Center.

The new 10-mile line represents a big change in BART technology. The Antioch extension uses diesel-powered cars that look more like streetcars on steroids. They are lower to the ground than BART cars and operate on standard-gauge railroad track, not on BART’s wider track. That means the two lines are not compatible. As a result, the Pittsburg/Bay Point Station, where the extension meets the main line and where passengers will transfer, is undergoing a face-lift, too.

When the $525 million extension finally opens, regular BART trains will make two stops at the Pittsburg/Bay Point Station — one stop at the existing platform and another stop at “platform 3” — some 100 yards to the east — where passengers will change to and from the Antioch extension trains.

BART riders will notice other changes in the new cars, too. Riders must push a button to enter or exit the cars, and some seats are accessible only by climbing steps at either end of the cars. Each car has video screens and electronic information signs.

The diesel system saves BART about half of what it would have cost to extend its existing electric-powered line. BART directors, once bitten and twice shy with the problems of their fleet of 44-year-old, once-revolutionary cars, elected to buy off-the-shelf transit cars from the Stadler company of Switzerland that have been used in many European and U.S. systems and have a proven track record.

Stadler manager Kurt Roth, who was on hand to show off his cars, said the company stands behind them with a two-year warranty. It’s shorter than most new automobile warranties, Roth acknowledged, but it should be more than adequate. Seven more trains — each consisting of two passenger cars and a shorter car in the middle that contains the diesel engine — are due to arrive by the end of the year.

BART expects 5,600 daily riders on the extension in its opening year and twice that many by 2030.

For a train that wasn’t going anyplace, the new cars were operating flawlessly, even though someone forgot to turn on the air conditioner in the rear car. That forced Oakley Mayor Kevin Romick to switch to the front car, where the air conditioner was working.

He seemed glad to get there, as it was 91 degrees outside, and he also said he was glad that the new extension means that his constituents will only have to drive 2 miles instead of 12 miles to get to a BART station.

Although the opening date has not been set, BART has made a few key decisions about the extension. The Antioch station, at Highway 4 and Hillcrest Avenue, will be called Antioch, but the Pittsburg station, at Highway 4 and Railroad Avenue, will be called Pittsburg Center.

That’s because BART already has a station — Pittsburg/Bay Point — that uses the Pittsburg name, although it is located in Bay Point, which is west of Pittsburg proper. BART said it will spell “center” in Pittsburg Center the regular way, even though it recently renamed its Pleasant Hill Station as Pleasant Hill/Contra Costa Centre — which is not the most confusing thing about the Pleasant Hill/Contra Costa Centre Station, since it is not located in Pleasant Hill but in Walnut Creek.

For now, it was enough for BART’s invited guests just to walk through the pristine cars and dream of future voyages to far-off Pittsburg/Bay Point.

“Next winter,” said BART General Manager Grace Crunican, predicting if not the opening date, then the opening season. “We feel pretty good saying that,” she said.

Crunican did predict that the long-delayed Warm Springs extension — BART’s other big project, whose opening is 2½ years behind schedule — will open before the Antioch extension, whose opening is but two years behind schedule.

©2016 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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