“Ghost trains” on BART signage will soon fade away.
That’s because starting Saturday morning, the more than 400 BART platform signs will finally tell riders when trains are canceled, solving a long-running pain in riders’ sides.
No, it isn’t the biggest issue. But as riders taking the system’s 420,000 daily trips know, it can be endlessly frustrating.
“Everyone gets upset because the train arrival time says ‘5 Minutes, 5 Minutes, 5 Minutes,’ and it doesn’t come,” said Wendy Wheeler, division manager of the computer systems engineering department responsible for upgrading the signs.
Wheeler’s division of 20 is responsible for just about any tech issue you can think of across BART, and even handily crafted measurement tools so BART staff can track malfunctions gumming up the system and fix them quickly. But the sign upgrade, while seemingly simple, has the potential to be transformative.
Some frustrated riders have even nicknamed the phenomenon “ghost trains.” In a July 28 email to BART, which is public record, a rider named Katherine wrote, “When I arrived on the platform a Richmond train was supposed to be in 10 min arriving at Ashby @ 6:17. It is now 6:13 the Richmond train has disappeared … If I performed this way on my job I would be fired.”
And on Twitter just this week Twitter user @georgeanng wrote, “Hey @SFBART why don’t you send updates for canceled commuter trains instead of the 10 million police activity incidents per day? A cancelled train usually means a delay also … Would be good to know.”
Suffice to say, it’s a frequent complaint, and one that one particular BART tech staffer was tasked with fixing.
Evan Brown, the senior computer systems engineer who coded the platform signage fix over a period of months, in between his other duties, said the error stems from exactly how BART calculates its arrival times.
For the most part, he said, those arrival times are actually a measure of distance.
If a train is sitting still five minutes away, then, the arrival time will continue to read as five minutes “even if it isn’t moving,” he said.
That’ll be fixed starting Saturday morning, when arrivals will be able to read as “cancelled,” which happens when those trains are re-routed to other parts of the system, among other reasons. There is one more surprise in the upgrade: BART displays will now list if a train features two-door cars, or three-door cars.
Why is that important? Three-door cars are explicitly “Fleet of the Future” trains. So for riders who want to experience BART’s newest vehicles, look for the three-door trains that are on their way.
Wheeler and Brown led the San Francisco Examiner and BART board director Janice Li on a tour of their lab one Monday afternoon. Wires hung off of every shelf, and on one side of the room two large BART platform signs sat stacked on top of each other, close enough to touch.
On a computer near those red-dotted displays, Brown opened a program that showed virtual platform signs across the BART system. This is where he tests new messages for passengers.
Upgrades are slow going, he said, because there are decades of code written ad hoc by different BART staffers over the years. An upcoming technical overhaul will soon make changes to BART signage far quicker, easier and more robust.
Coupled with that overhaul, Wheeler said, will also be new digital station platform signs that the BART Board of Directors may be asked to approve some time in the next year. Those platform signs may soon be full color, and capable of displaying multiple messages side by side, instead of rotating through messages.
That may address one of Li’s complaints — she asked the tech team if the signs will one day display train arrival information in different languages, like Chinese.
The answer was yes, but only after those signs are upgraded. Other features would be available with such an upgrade: Fleet of the Future trains measure riders’ weight, for instance, allowing the new signs to tell riders which train cars are full, and which have seats available.
Until then, Wheeler, Brown and others at BART have to exercise every trick in the book to keep those older signs lit, like mechanics asked to maintain a decades-old jalopy racing the Indy 500. The classic red-toned dot-matrix platform signs riders are used to were created by a now-defunct company, and BART has replacement parts reverse-engineered, then fabricated, in order to keep them operating.
“I’m consistently impressed with BART staff’s ingenuity to keep our aging system running and serving the Bay Area every day,” Li told me after our tour. “Keeping these signs functioning is a half-miracle, in some ways.”
But, she said, “ultimately, we need to replace our signs with modern technology.”
It’s obvious to Li that the retro-red platform signs have gone the way of the cassette tape.