BART tests ShakeAlert early warning system

Zahira Chaudhry/Staff

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BART tested its response to the ShakeAlert earthquake early warning system Monday, slowing trains and broadcasting an advisory message in stations and trains.

The ShakeAlert system detects initial seismic P-waves, which are nondamaging, to allow BART to prepare for the damaging S-waves that follow. The system was described as a lifesaver by lawmakers and BART representatives in a press conference after Monday’s demonstration.

“We noticed that the Fukushima earthquake in 2011 did not derail any of the bullet trains, and that left an impression on us at BART,” said Robert Raburn, president of BART board of directors during the demonstration.

Raburn described the steps taken by BART, saying that trains will stop for a short period of time and that the track is assessed at manual speed — 27 miles per hour — after any detected earthquake. He also said the system was first employed successfully in 2014 after the Napa earthquake and has been tested a number of times since.

Richard Allen, director of the Berkeley Seismology Lab and a prominent researcher on the ShakeAlert project, was also present and credited the collaborative efforts of various government entities and other universities. He also discussed how the system compares to similar early warning systems in Japan and Mexico.

“I actually think that we can say today that ShakeAlert is the most sophisticated early warning system in the world,” Allen said. “The piece that we are behind in still is getting the alert out. … The technology to deliver an alert to all 8 million residents of the Bay Area within seconds does not exist here, today.”

Raburn said the early warning response is one of many steps being taken by BART to increase safety in the event of an earthquake, citing the Transbay Tube retrofit and other structural reinforcements. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf also addressed continuing earthquake safety at the press conference, calling for increased bipartisan support for infrastructure and using the platform to urge voters to vote against Proposition 6, which would overturn Gov. Jerry Brown’s gas tax increases that have been used to fund transportation measures.

Allen, as well as other speakers, noted that Monday was “phase one” of public rollout and that work will continue to be done to expand the applications of the ShakeAlert system.

“It will allow doctors to remove a scalpel from a patient; it will allow manufacturers to stop sensitive processes,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, at the press conference. It will not be long from now that you will get an alert on your phone that an earthquake is coming.”

Schaaf shared Schiff’s optimistic view for the future of the system, stating that in an urban setting, the system can be used to trigger automated processes that could limit damage and provide greater access for emergency services.

Robert-Michael de Groot, a spokesperson for U.S. Geological Survey, said the test Monday went “exactly as it’s supposed to.”

Contact Alex Teodorescu at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @AlexTeodorescu8.