One of BART's Biggest Fans
Among those who are relieved that BART’s unions have finally approved a new contract is Barney Smits (B.S.’92 ME), who rides Bay Area Rapid Transit every weekday from his Oakland home to his office, two blocks from Oakland’s 19th St. station.
“I take it just about everywhere I can,” he says. “To the opera in the city, to the airport when I’m traveling. Once you’re used to it, it’s the absolute best, easiest way of getting around.”
But then he might be biased. Smits, 53, is the transit system’s principal mechanical engineer, a job he’s held for several years. He’s one of the guys who makes sure that the 20 miles of tunnel and 208 miles of track and all the stations and system facilities are safe for riders like him, and you. Previously he was a construction manager for Kaiser Engineers, working primarily on BART projects. Before that he had an entirely different career in mind: he earned a music degree from Diablo Valley College and was even accepted to the San Francisco Conservatory. Although he still plays classical guitar, he didn’t pursue the Conservatory option, and his career went down a different track.
But those agile fingers do come in handy.
“On Monday mornings, I don’t choose my best clothes because I never know where I’m going to end up,” Smits admits. He might be reviewing drawings and specs for the new station south of Fremont or get called out to an emergency in the field. A specialist in fire safety, he was on a team of ten BART engineers who facilitated connecting four stations (South San Francisco, San Bruno, San Francisco International Airport and Millbrae) and nearly seven miles of tunnel when BART brought the San Francisco extension online in 2003.
BART is considered a two-track system, or a north-south railroad. So even though the Transbay Tube runs east-west, the Oakland side is north of the San Francisco side. And what about that tube, the tunnel that dives 120 to 140 feet under water and follows the contour of San Francisco Bay? While racing through it may give some riders the jitters, Smits says it’s one of the safer places to be in earthshaking emergencies.
“The tunnel has seismic expansion joints on each end, so it can move in the event of an earthquake,” he says. “It has pumps and fire protection, fans and ventilation systems. There are a huge number of emergency systems designed to make sure all is running safely in there.”
And what causes those pesky BART delays? According to Smits, that can’t be blamed on any one thing, or even on BART itself. The 40-year-old infrastructure is tended by a crew of 100 to 200 employees who work the 2 am to 4 am maintenance shift, patching frayed wires that sprout up with the first rain of the season and making other repairs. (That’s one reason BART doesn’t run around the clock.) But kids throw balls on the track, medical emergencies arise, and other uncontrollable events are bound to occur on a system that handles more than 325,000 passengers every weekday.
“You almost have to think of BART as a moving city,” Smits says. “Granted, some of [the residents] are only in town for 20 minutes, but still, that’s a lot of people. It’s really interesting that the trains are able to do as well as they are.”
During his daily commute Smits sometimes has to put his book aside to tend to some emergency or other event. If he sees a door ajar or a utility hatch that’s not working properly, he makes a point of checking it out himself or contacting someone who can fix it. Once, at the 12th St. station, he had to jump onto the track way to remove an orange construction cone someone had thrown in the train’s path. The station staff didn’t feel comfortable getting onto the track, so Smits took charge.
“You’re never really comfortable being on the tracks,” he says, but I’ve been in and out of every tunnel in the system. I’m a long-time tunnel rat.”