Computer Glitches and Flattened Wheels Prompt BART to Pause New Fleet Delivery

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A car from BART's 'Fleet of the Future' (right) alongside one of the transit agency's old cars at Pleasant Hill Station in October 2016. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

BART's much-anticipated "Fleet of the Future" may be stuck in the future a little longer.

The agency will "temporarily stop" accepting the new rail cars from manufacturer Bombardier on Jan 8, citing issues with the trains' software and wheels, the agency said in a statement.

The new trains' onboard automatic train control system causes them to "routinely stop while in service," a system broadly considered safety-critical in the transportation industry. The trains won't move again until an operator reboots the system, an agency spokesperson wrote in a statement. The cars’ wheels can also develop flat spots if a train is stopped in rainy or wet conditions, prompting the cars to be removed from service so that the wheels can be resurfaced.

"While neither issue impacts the safety of existing (Fleet of the Future) cars currently in service, they can impact service reliability and car availability," they wrote.

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The $2.6 billion train order will eventually see 775 brand new, far-quieter rail cars grace the transit system's fleet, but right now, BART only has about 300 of them. The pause in accepting cars will give Bombardier time "to take steps to improve the cars’ reliability and availability, and to alleviate rail car storage constraints at BART’s maintenance yards," an agency spokesperson wrote.

The new cars are vital, the agency has said, to deliver more dependable service for the region. They've been anticipated to replace the aging, older fleet as far back as 2016, with rave reviews claiming they are far quieter and cleaner, and sport more ample space than the original, still-running, BART train cars.

Still, this is far from the first bump in the road for BART's future fleet, like when train doors had trouble opening for inspectors. The new future fleet reportedly had issues when coupling multiple rail cars, and, as the San Francisco Chronicle noted, the rail cars have also experienced higher-than-expected maintenance issues.

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It also comes at a precarious time for transit budgets across the Bay Area, and at BART, in the wake of the pandemic. BART's ridership dropped 87% in 2020, leading to a $210 million budget deficit with a potential for "deep cuts and gutting service" should federal relief not stem the bleeding, BART General Manager Bob Powers has previously said.

There is some glimmer of hope as the combined $2.3 trillion COVID-19 relief package approved by Congress includes $14 billion for public transit, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, with as much as $978 million coming to the Bay Area to assist all of its transit agencies.

Slowing the intake of new train cars will have another effect, BART said: It will have to slow down the decommissioning of its older fleet to ensure service. Some of those 618 legacy cars may be sold to the public for uses other than transportation — from possible train car-cafes to museums.

Given this newest delay, sipping a latte inside a decommissioned BART car may have to wait.