How San Francisco Is Designing Its Metro Train of the Future

September 16, 2014
BART cars are about to get their first real overhaul since the system launched in 1972.

On September 11, 1972, crowds lined up for hours to be the first passengers aboard the sleek and high-tech trains of the new San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit system. In the lead-up to the opening, newspapers had envisioned a gleaming future for train travel in America. One wire report asked readers to imagine "traveling 30 miles in 20 minutes, relaxing in a soft lounge chair, reading a newspaper during the smooth ride." One headline announced "Transit System for Space Age." The new BART trains lived up to that visionary billing: the spaceship silver, the hexagonal shape of the cars, and the plush aqua interiors had a sci-fi sort of feel, like this was the kind of train that would someday whisk you across cities on the moon.

A full 42 years later, those same exact train cars are still on the tracks, and they don't feel so futuristic anymore. A lot more people are riding BART today than during the system's early years. Average weekday ridership is now about 400,000, up from just over 100,000 in the late 1970s. And though the 1972-vintage trains have undergone remodeling and the system has been augmented with a few dozen newer trains, the overall state of BART trains is old, crusty, and cramped. "We have old cars," says Aaron Weinstein, the agency's chief marketing officer. "Our fleet is one of the oldest in the nation."

There have been considerable advances in the technologies used to make train cars over the last four decades—from seats that are easier to clean to communications systems that can display information dynamically to lighter structural materials that reduce energy demands. Train operators around the world understand these changes, and periodically update their systems with newer models of train cars or better signage systems. Washington D.C.'s Metro system will be integrating brand new train cars to its system next summer that feature floors that are easier to clean and handrails that reduce clogging around doors. Chicago's CTA will begin adding 800 new cars to its fleet in 2019 with designs that remove unpopular center-facing seats.

Nearly half a century after the system's launch, BART will get its own long-awaited makeover. The so-called "Fleet of the Future" plan will put between 775 and 1,000 new BART cars on the tracks between 2017 and 2023, at a cost between $2.5 billion and $3.3 billion. But the overhaul is more of a full reimagining than a cosmetic touchup—from the big-picture look of the car itself to the minutiae of floor patterning and handrail grips. BART used the chance to rethink how the trains look on the outside and feel on the inside, how they accommodate the crowds of today and the near future, and how they subtly control rush-hour crowds and all those bicycles. The designers behind this project are focusing on the many minor details that together make a train ride either smooth or crowded or terrible or great.