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The Better Way - San Francisco nicknamed the 'Beirut of transit'

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CLASSY STATION: California commuters wait for a train at Colma BART subway station under “Leonardo’s dream,” designed by artist Daniel Goldstein.

By Joseph Hall
Toronto Star Transportation Reporter

SAN FRANCISCO - Ding ding da ding da da ding ding ding… .

“That’s the girl call bell, it means a pretty girl walked by,” hollers Byron Cobb, two time bell ringing champion among this city’s ding crazy cable car drivers. “And they know it too, because they always turn and smile.”

Hanging off the side of Cobb’s California St. cable car, as it climbs its steep and picturesque route through the financial district to Van Ness Ave., it’s hard not to smile, too.

With Cobb’s rap prattle, singing and bell ringing in your ear, you roll up …past old St. Mary’s Cathedral … ding da ding … past the Fairmont, the city’s crown jewel hotel … ding ding … past Grace Cathedral Episcopal Church, and it’s 255-foot, copper-tipped spire … ding da ding ding … and then, look back and … oh, my … .

If you were going to leave your heart in San Francisco, you might as well leave it here; as the rumbling cable car crests Nob Hill, with fog slowly building on the bay below and sunshine shimmering across this storybook city.

Many outsiders still think of San Francisco’s few remaining cable cars as the municipality’s public transportation mainstay. But they’re really a relic of the past, an ornament San Franciscans refused to relinquish when their usefulness as efficient transit tools ran out decades ago.

The cable crawlers have been overtaken by a number of area transit systems - including one of the best and one of the worst subways in North America - which form the fiercely competitive commuter transportation network that runs through nine counties in the San Francisco Bay area.

“Someone once called us the Beirut of transit, and we just have too many transit agencies,” says Thomas Margro, general manager of the Bay Area Rapid Transit District or BART.

“And the first instinct is what? Survival. So to survive, we end up competing with one another for the scarce dollars both for operating and capital projects.”

That competition rages between 27 large and small transit operators in the immediate Bay vicinity. These include BART, with 280,000 riders a day, The San Francisco Municipal Railway, or Muni, with 700,000 daily passengers and Oakland’s AC Transit which carries about 235,000 people over 148 bus and trolley lines every 24 hours.

(The GTA has 16 transit systems in its five area regions).

Of all the Bay systems, Muni, with its fabulously quirky but inefficient streetcar system running above and below the rolling streets of San Francisco, has come under the most fire.

The “Muni Metro,” which takes trains of two to four connected streetcars underground and along surface routes through large parts of San Francisco, reaps negative headlines often on a daily basis.

“It’s a can of worms over there,” says BART’s communications head Mike Healy, whose system was recently asked to lend its technical and planning expertise to help fix the Muni Metro problem.

It was a logical request.

Because BART, quite simply is the top survivor of the area’s shaky public transit heap and an icon among North America’s subway systems.

Opened 26 years ago, BART was a template for many subsequent systems. Its operational and planning strategies over the years may well influence decisions that will soon have to be made in the Greater Toronto Area.

Initiatives BART is working on include:

  • A decision to build a $1.2 billion (U.S.) 13-kilometre extension from BART’s southernmost terminus to the San Francisco International Airport.
  • Pushing through a politically difficult plan to pour another $1.1 billion into refurbishing the existing system, including an overhaul of its original 439 subway car fleet and many of its 39 existing stations.
  • Developing a new radio control system, which will allow operators to safely push twice as many trains through BART’s 153 kilometres of constricted and overused lines at much higher speeds.

You hear so much praise about BART from visitors who have travelled it before, that you might expect something along the lines of a grand hotel lobby when you first enter the system.

So first impressions might prove disappointing.

The soot and grime that will eventually cake any working subway are evident on many of BART’s art-lined station walls and slotted steel ceiling panels. The dark tinted windows on the trains have fallen victim to the etched graffiti, or scratchiti, that has become endemic on North America’s urban transit vehicles.

And slivered cracks have spread after a quarter century’s use through BART’s marble platform floors, while stains and wear mark the cushioned fabric seats and carpeting on the cars themselves.

But as worn with use as it is, BART still possesses the most comfortable cars and most appealing stations (excepting perhaps for those on the Montreal Metro) of all of North America’s subway systems.

“It was a conscious decision made in the early planning stage to make BART as attractive as possible and it was part of the over-all concept of BART as being competitive with the automobile,” Healy says.

To that end, planners outfitted their cars with plush seating and carpeting and made them the roomiest trains running on the continent.

Not all design features, however, had car wheels in mind when they were adopted during BART’s 1960s’ planning stages. System designers also insisted that each of the subway’s 12 original stations be made accessible to people in wheelchairs. And all subsequent stations have had accessibility built in.

Healy says BART was the first North American transit system to listen to the demands of the handicapped and responded by adding elevators and curb cuts to all its stations and by making the space between subway car doors and platforms as narrow as possible.

“And the truth of the matter is that BART looks back on that proudly, that we were able to do those things … that we were able to pioneer it,” Healy says.

BART, however, is now digging into far bigger projects.

Construction began on the biggest last month as sod was turned for a new line directly into the San Francisco International Airport. Scheduled to open in 2001, a combination of tunnels and elevated tracking will take passengers and employees (an estimated 20,000 a day by 2010) into the airport, which, like Toronto’s Pearson International, is currently undergoing a multibillion dollar renovation.

But while a transit link to Pearson is still a pipe dream here, BART is on its way.

“We did have enormous obstacles to overcome to get it, but we have overcome them,” Margro says.

And with a tab of $1.167 billion (U.S.), financing was obviously the largest of these obstacles. (TTC officials say a similar seven-kilometre subway from Kipling station to Pearson would cost in excess of $1 billion.)

Yet the Bay area municipalities, like others in the United States, are luckier than their Canadian counterparts in that they could look to their federal government for transit expansion money.

‘We’re not really set up as a rapid transit system. Our cars only have two sets of doors per side’

Washington will spend about $40 billion over the next six years on commuter capital projects, while Ottawa contributes nothing.

But competing successfully with other transit agencies for that big a chunk of the federal transit buck required a years-long lobby effort by California-based senators, congressional representatives, Bay area mayors, the BART board and top corporate executives.

“We’re getting roughly 72 per cent from the federal government, we’re getting $108 million from the state and we’re getting $99 million from our partner, the San Bruno County SamTrans system,” Healy says.

Surprisingly, Margro points out, the major funding resistance came from San Francisco International itself and the airlines that use it.

“I think the basic reason for the objection was that they knew that we would be asking them to foot some of the bill,” Margro says.

Indeed, the airport was asked to come up with $200 million for the project. And as airlines flying into any port pay a good portion of their freight through landing fees, that was a figure the carriers balked at.

“I believe … the airlines thought this funding requirement might be somewhat precedent setting around the country,” Margro adds.

But former San Francisco International Airport boss Louis Turpen, who currently runs Toronto’s Pearson International Airport as head of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, says BART’s $200 million request was little more than a money grab for a politically motivated line.

The city, he adds, would have been far better off with an “intermodal” terminal near airport property that could have handled both subway, bus and commuter train passengers.

A relatively cheap monorail type line could have ferried those passengers into the airport proper, after having checked their luggage at the off-site terminal, he maintains.

“I think the chances of this (Pearson) airport financing an off-airport transit line is remote,” Turpen adds. “Every dime that we generate is going to be generated for the redevelopment of Pearson.”

BART’s new spurt of growth, however, is coming just as the 39-station, five-line system is entering middle age.

But BART is trying to avert a mid-life crisis - like the general system decline that led to Toronto’s lethal 1995 subway crash - by pouring $1.1 billion into a major system overhaul, including a radical new signalling system.

And it’s this new signalling system that might repair two serious defects that were unwittingly built into BART at the beginning. These two problems have increasingly plagued BART in recent years.

First, much like GO Transit, BART was set up primarily to be a comfortable commuter train service. And over the years it has pushed its five lines out to 19 cities over five Bay area counties, with the average BART rider travelling 24 kilometres a trip.

As it weaves its tunnelled paths through downtown Oakland and San Francisco, however, BART must also act as a high volume “rapid transit” system, much like Toronto’s own TTC subway.

And in a rapid transit subway, riders need easily accessible trains that can take on and disgorge hundreds of passengers at stations that are highly concentrated in the two downtown areas.

“The trouble is, we’re not really set up as a rapid transit system,” Margro says. “Our cars only have two sets of doors per side and that makes our load times longer as our ridership goes up.”

The second major problem is due to the bottleneck created by the system’s need to shove four of its five lines through the two tracks that span the bottom of San Francisco Bay.

And as those four lines emerge on to the San Francisco side from Oakland, they must keep to those two lines, Margro says.

The result of this systemic congestion has been to push the time between trains travelling on any one line to between 15 and 20 minutes.

The solution to both of BART’s problems would be to build more lines in San Francisco and across the bay at a cost of billions of dollars. Or, far more simply, BART could refine its subway control system, allowing more trains to run closer together at higher speeds.

At a cost of $45 million, BART officials have decided to try the second solution.

Known as Advanced Automatic Train Control or AATC, the new system is being developed by BART and its California corporate partner Harmon Industries Inc. and should be in place by 2001.

And, if it works as its designers predict, it could radically alter the way all subway systems are run around the globe.

“It uses radio technology and it could be applied to any underground system in the world,” says Charles Foudree, Harmon’s chief financial officer.

The system, originally developed by the U.S. military for tank co-ordination during the Persian Gulf War, would use radio signals to pinpoint the location and speed of a subway train as it moves through a tunnel.

The system would use radio transmitters and receivers, carried on the trains and placed throughout the subway tunnels. The moving and stationary radios would interact to locate each train in the system, and a central computer would calculate its distance from the trains in front of and behind it.

“It’s known as a ‘moving block’ system and most systems today work on a ‘fixed block’ concept,” Foudree says.

“And on a fixed block signalling system, you have predesignated blocks (of track) where you have one block here, another three miles out, and another three miles past that. And in a fixed block system, the signals won’t let a train enter one block if another train is already in it.”

These fixed block systems create what operators call “dead space,” or long stretches of unused track that slow down, and limits the number of trains that can utilize a line.

With the AATC system, however, the train would create its own “moving block” - a radio shadow that tells it when it is too close to the train ahead.

Only when the shadows of two trains intersect would they haveto stop or slow down.

Foudree says the system would boost the number of trains able to move through the Bay tunnel to 30 from 16 an hour.