BART receives federal grant to fund creation of new safety device

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Sarina Kernberg/File

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The Federal Transit Administration awarded BART $5 million to implement an innovative safety device designed to protect trackside workers.

According to BART spokesperson Jim Allison, the device would be the first of its kind in that it would automatically stop trains nearing an active workspace if the workers there don’t reply to the approaching train’s signal.

“There are devices that will warn workers, but there’s not currently a failsafe technology that guarantees that a train will not enter into a workspace,” Allison said, highlighting that this is “the big difference” they hope to create with this new technology.

According to Allison, BART requested the grant shortly after the October 2013 incident in which a BART train fatally struck two workers. BART’s policy at the time was known as “simple approval” and made workers responsible for their own safety; it was changed after the incident.

Allison added that the support of U.S. representatives Barbara Lee, Eric Swalwell and Mike Honda was instrumental in procuring the necessary funds. The vast majority of these funds will be used to create the new technology, with equal amounts dedicated to software and hardware development, while about $300,000 will be devoted to integrating that technology with the existing BART system.

The project, which will begin immediately, is set to be completed in spring 2017. After system design and testing are completed, the system will need to be certified by the California Public Utilities Commission.

Pete Castelli, executive director of Service Employees International Union Local 1021 — the largest of the three unions that represent BART workers — said union pressure is a major reason why BART is improving worker safety.

“It’s undeniable after what happened in 2013 with the two deaths that something had to change,” Castelli said. “Safety is one of our main bargaining issues, and BART agreed after the incident that more needed to be done to protect workers.”

When asked if he agreed with Allison that the new device will be failsafe, Castelli was skeptical.

“I’m not sure if anything is completely failsafe, and there are other concerns like fire and debris on the track that this doesn’t address,” Castelli said. “That said, we totally support any measure designed to improve worker safety.”

In addition to improving worker safety, the new system should help reduce delays that result from current BART policy, which requires trains to slow down when approaching workspaces.

According to Allison, the new system would remove the necessity for trains to reduce their speed, given that they would come to a halt if the workers failed to reply.

“We think that if this is a success, this is scalable,” Allison said. “It could be used in railroad environments throughout the world.”

Contact Logan Goldberg at [email protected].