BART trains using new cars are configured in a way that restricts passenger movement between cars, according to train operators. (Courtesy Michael Granat)

BART operators warn Fleet of the Future could trap passengers during fires, emergencies

Trains using new cars configured in a way that restricts the movement of riders between cars

BART’s new “Fleet of the Future” trains may trap and kill passengers, operators are warning.

At least, in their current configuration.

That’s the claim of BART operator Michael Granat. Granat was a lone voice speaking out at a July BART board meeting, but since he first came forward, more operators have joined his cause.

BART’s Fleet of the Future consists of two car types: E Cars and D Cars. E Cars operate like older cars in that they feature doors on both ends that lead to the next train car.

D Cars, however, feature a small operator unit, so they feature more difficult doors on that end that can only be opened by BART operators. The agency confirmed that passengers cannot open D Car doors at one end of the vehicle without the assistance of an operator.

BART has seen the delivery of its Fleet of the Future slowed for maintenance issues, it has been widely reported. In order to reduce wear and tear on the few Fleet of the Future cars the agency has now, BART is running two D Cars in the center of its trains and has run them that configuration since January 2018.

The tough-to-open doors face each other, then, in the center of the train, and pose a barrier to free passenger movement, operators say.

“At this point, I can safely say that very few things here at BART frighten me, but the practice of operating trains configured where passengers could be trapped in a car while an emergency is going on terrifies me,” Granat told the BART board in July.

BART spokesperson James Allison contested Granat’s claim.

“We strongly believe our current practice is safe,” Allison told the San Francisco Examiner.

Though BART passengers freely move from car to car in the agency’s legacy fleet, Allison noted there are other transit systems that don’t allow free movement between train cars, including LA Metro Link and trains in Dallas, Texas. BART runs four Fleet of the Future trains with D Cars in the center daily, Allison said, although he noted that number fluctuates.

BART Board of Directors President Bevan Dufty said safety is BART’s “highest responsibility and priority.”

He also noted Granat’s union representatives, the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, helped design BART’s Fleet of the Future.

“Management has and will continue to work together with ATU to refine emergency procedures that have changed as the result of the new vehicles,” he said in a statement.

Though Granat first alerted BART to the issue publicly in July, when he came back to the board to remind them of his concern at its September 12 meeting he had backup.

Yusuf Nasir, a shop steward with the operators’ union, told the board he also worried for passenger safety in the new fleet configuration.

“It’s an unsafe situation and it’s pretty scary for us,” Nasir said. “We feel we’re being forced to operate these trains in this manner, in an unsafe manner. We have to choose between safety and our jobs, essentially.”

Gena Alexander, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, which represents BART operators, station agents, and clerical staff, said, “I stand behind Mike Granat.”

Alexander said the union asked BART conduct emergency drills to demonstrate the dangers possible in an emergency on a Fleet of the Future train. She credited Granat’s efforts to bring the issue to light.

“Although we have seen these cars in operation in other systems we don’t believe that mid-car… is where they belong,” Alexander said.

Granat described the danger in startling detail back in July.

An operator since 1990, Granat is seasoned — but even he found it difficult to open the D-Car doors in safe conditions. “I had to bend down while on top of the coupler plate, which is about a foot wide, and reach over a couple of feet to my left to key open a small cabinet on the facing door,” he said.

Those couplers spread the train cars out much farther apart than most BART riders are used to, he noted.

“My concern, however, is greater than that,” Granat said.

Years ago, a train he operated stopped in the Transbay tube, under San Francisco Bay, after its brakes locked up and overheated.

“The amount of smoke which enveloped the train was so thick that I could not see a milepost sign a few feet in front of me, it was like trying to see in a severe blizzard,” he said. “If I was trying to open the second D Car door, under those circumstances, I doubt that I could have before becoming overcome with smoke inhalation.”

His passengers, he warned, would be in far more danger than a normal emergency in that scenario — caught in a panic, able to think less clearly due to fear they may not even be able to escape.

The practice of running D Cars in the center of trains will continue “for the time being,” Allison said. But when BART’s newest order of train cars from Bombardier Transit Corporation is filled, the ratio of E Cars (which feature doors at either end that open to passengers) and D Cars “will shift” so that the “majority of cars” in the center of trains are E Cars, he said.

In the meantime, Granat continues to warn the BART Board of Directors of potential danger.

He even invited board members to tour a maintenance yard with him, so he could show them the danger himself.

“I think the public deserves a safe ride,” he said.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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