24-hours a day, BART mechanics labor to get Richmond to work on time

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Bordered on three sides by tracks, Richmond’s Iron Triangle neighborhood is known for its trains. But it’s also home to a different kind of rail yard. Twenty-four hours a day, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) mechanics repair the electric cars that transport commuters around the bay. But that task is getting harder as BART’s fleet gets older.

“These things are getting old and they start to fatigue,” said Dan Paris, a mechanic at the BART maintenance yard in Richmond. “So we have to weld them up and fix whatever may be.”

During a recent visit to Richmond’s repair yard, Paris served as a member of the day’s “move crew,” making him responsible for moving cars in and out of the shop for repair, and placing cars over “the pit” so inspectors could diagnose mechanical problems.

Mike Hung is a maintenance supervisor at the Richmond yard. He explains that the BART repair shop functions like a 24-hour car mechanic’s shop. When a train car breaks down, the repair process is similar to what a driver might experience on the road. A BART driver might notice a problem, like a “check engine” light on the dashboard, or the car might simply break down. Then the driver would report the problem, and a technician would come to check it out. Like roadside assistance, the technicians would take a quick look, and either fix the problem or arrange to have the car towed to a repair shop like the Richmond BART yard.

Hung says the process to get those cars back into service is something people often take for granted.

“I think a lot of times the public is not really fully aware of what’s underneath,” he said. “It’s heavy, it’s dirty, it’s–”

Paris completed the thought: “It’s a lot of work.”

The age of BART’s fleet adds an extra element of challenge to the work, Paris explained. Some of the cars are roughly 40 years old, and BART spends more than $130 million a year on maintenance. The parts are old, and replacements can be hard to find.

“These arms we have to have custom made now because we can’t get them any more,” Paris said, gesturing to a component of the car’s sliding passenger door, inside an empty BART car that’s come in for scheduled maintenance. “We’re pretty much out of a lot of this stuff. Because it was never really meant to be replaced.”

Inside the wall of the car is a complex mechanism of motors, wires, and metal joints. All of this works together to open and close the doors.

“This piece of steel right here is what they’re bending,” Paris said, pointing to a piece of half-inch steel. “I have no idea how they’re bending these things but it’s pretty amazing to be able to bend a piece of steel this thick.”

One of the biggest challenges BART mechanics face isn’t budget issues or aging infrastructure: Its passengers.

Hung said he’s found all kinds of things, from batteries and pens to old-fashioned gumballs, that fall into the cracks and jam a car door. He describes these obstacles as “just the daily things that we have to deal with” at the repair shop.

It only takes an object the size of a pea to jam the doors to a BART car, but those tiny objects have a huge impact. Hung explained that a jammed door is a major safety issue — you can’t have the doors open on a train going more than 40 miles per hour — so that kind of malfunction results in a one-way trip to the mechanic: causing delays and taking much-needed cars out of service.

“At this point, we’re trying to put cars back into service. Even the ones in need of heavy repair,” Hung added.

Because of the Bay Area’s rising population, BART puts almost all of its cars into service every day, leaving few cars to spare when something goes wrong.

Paris said he recognizes the importance of a functional fleet: “Our patrons are always trying to get to work on time and I understand that. If they’re delayed, they’re mad. We have to repair the car again. It’s just a vicious circle and I just want to make sure everybody gets to work every day.”

While the public opinion of BART might not always be positive, mechanics at the Richmond yard take great pride in their work. Paris, in particular, went out of his way to talk about how much he loves his job.

“It’s pride, personal pride in what we do,” he said, citing problem-solving as his favorite aspect of the work. “Figuring it out, fixing them, getting them out, and making sure they don’t come back for that same problem.”

In the coming year, BART is planning to bring in new cars that will be easier to maintain and better serve commuters.

Until then, Paris is hoping for patience: “Just be nice. Be nice to the cars. They’re old and the nicer you are to the cars, the longer they’ll last until we can get the new cars in running.”

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