UC Berkeley seismologists help install earthquake warning system in BART

Sarina Kernberg/Staff
A man waits in the Downtown Berkeley BART station as a train approaches.

Commuters on BART can feel a little safer thanks to a recent collaboration between UC Berkeley seismologists and the transit agency.

BART teamed up with UC Berkeley seismologists last month to install an earthquake warning system that would allow for automatic deceleration of its trains in the case of a quake — the first system in the United States of its kind.

The California Integrated Seismic Network, which has earthquake sensors throughout California, is now connected to the transit system so that in the case of a quake, data can be sent to BART to shut down the system before any shaking actually reaches the trains.

The shutdown would go into effect for local earthquakes that register as a 4.0 or above on the Richter scale and for outside earthquakes that are a 5.0 or above.

According to UC Berkeley seismologist Peggy Hellweg, the amount of time that BART would have to prepare is dependent on the location of the earthquake’s epicenter.

“If the epicenter is at Hayward, there would be no warning time,” said Hellweg. “But if it was like the 1906 earthquake that started in Cape Mendocino, there would be a minute to a minute and a half of warning.”

The trains would decelerate at two miles per hour every second. According to BART Board of Directors President John McPartland, that means a train traveling at 70 mph would decelerate to 43 mph in 10 seconds and would come to a complete stop in 24 seconds.

Due to BART’s computer control system, the earthquake warning would automatically go into effect, adding valuable seconds that would be lost if it were run by humans.

“Human reaction time can take several seconds,” said Hellweg. “It slows the process down when people are deciding what needs to be done.”

According to McPartland, in addition to potentially preventing the derailment of trains and injuries to passengers, the system could also mean BART would still be able to serve as an important mode of transportation after an earthquake.

“If BART survives and everything else does not, we have the ability to evacuate out and bring resources in,” said McPartland. “From a disaster and recovery standpoint, where everything else collapses, the ability for BART to provide this service is critical.”

UC Berkeley Seismological Laboratory Director Richard Allen and U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Bill Leith presented an update on the system to congressional staff members in Washington D.C. on Friday.

“To do it nationwide would take a lot more more effort than to implement on the West Coast,” Hellweg said. “The presentation to Congress is to explain it to them and hopefully get long-term funding to completely implement it.”

Although BART is the first to install this system, there are other efforts to develop a similar program called the Early Earthquake Warning System, according to USGS seismologist Douglas Given.

That system would notify people about a quake via text messages, email, Internet and social media.

“This would have a more primitive and simpler approach,” said Given.

But before a system to notify the public can be successful, according to Hellweg, there needs to be more outreach so people know what to do in the case of a quake.

“A warning that arrives and people don’t know what to do is not a warning,” Hellweg said.

Contact Andrea Guzman at [email protected]