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Do You Love BART's Nixon-Era Train Cars? Ride Now, Because They're About to Go Away

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A train car pulls into an outdoor station with several passengers waiting on the platform.
A train destined for Warm Springs arrives at the West Oakland BART station in Oakland on Aug. 2, 2018. (Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

BART’s classic old train cars — maybe “classic” should be in quotes — have a storied history.

When they began service in the previous century, a soon-to-be-disgraced president of the United States was one of the first to ride them. After his ride in September 1972, Richard Nixon was impressed and said BART made a good case for shifting federal transportation money from highways to mass transit.

President Richard Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon riding on BART in September 1972.
President Richard Nixon and first lady Pat Nixon during their Sept. 27, 1972, BART ride from San Leandro to Lake Merritt station. They were accompanied by BART General Manager B.R. Stokes, facing away from camera. (Larry Tiscornia/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Later, the cars did heroic duty as BART ran 24 hours a day for a month after the Bay Bridge was knocked out of service by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Still later, when BART was no longer a novelty and crowded trains had become the norm, enterprising journalists swabbed the cars’ wool-upholstered seats and determined they were crawling with germs.

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OK, so maybe that’s not such a glorious past. And maybe that’s not giving the cars their full due for the part they played in BART’s creation story. The vehicles were designed with the idea that if trains were fast enough, sleek enough and plush enough, they’d help attract riders who wanted an alternative to driving.

If you have been, or once were, a regular BART rider, and especially if you were a patron before the pandemic, you probably got used to spending an hour or two a day in those cars: sitting, standing, sleeping, wondering why the air conditioning didn’t work better (or at all), trying to catch what the train operator was saying over the public address system.

But now those old vehicles seem to have grown extra dingy. That’s especially apparent when you look at them side-by-side with BART’s still fresh-looking new cars, which began service in January 2018.

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)

After a slow start to the ambitious car replacement program, including a long pause caused by problems with some of the new fleet’s software and hardware, the agency is now running more than 560 of the new cars. With BART about to start running shorter trains on all of its routes, the supply of new cars will be more than enough to operate the agency’s daily service without using the tired-looking legacy fleet. (The reason for shorter trains: BART says (PDF) that will make trains easier to police, simpler to keep clean and cheaper to run.)


So next month, on Sept. 11, exactly 51 years after they carried their first paying passengers, the old cars will be retired from regular service. If for some reason you want one last reminder of the sights, the sounds, the smells of the legacy fleet, this is your chance.

One might think a ceremony is in order, and BART General Manager Robert Powers told KQED during a media ride-along Tuesday that the agency will sponsor a farewell ride for the old train cars. No date for that event has been set.

Powers did not sound overly nostalgic about the end of the legacy fleet era. From a durability and reliability standpoint, he said, the old cars “have really performed. But change is inevitable, and change is good, and these new cars are just so superior.”

And if you really, really miss the old cars, don’t lose heart. The Western Railway Museum, in Solano County near Rio Vista, has purchased one of the legacy vehicles — in fact, the one that Nixon rode on in 1972 — for a future exhibit.

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