New BART train cars flunked a safety inspection by a state regulatory agency Friday, casting doubt on whether the new 775-car fleet will be providing passenger service by Thanksgiving.
The cars in the agency's 669-car fleet are 30 to 40 years old on average, "the oldest of any heavy rail commuter system in the U.S.," according to spokesman Jim Allison, and the agency is replacing them.
However, BART must first correct a problem that surfaced during a test run of a 10-car pilot train with a California Public Utilities Commission team aboard Friday, according to Elizaveta Malashenko, director of the CPUC's Safety and Enforcement Division.
"The Operator was unable to open the doors at platform stops," Malashenko noted in a Monday letter to BART's general manager.
"... BART is denied permission to operate the new cars in revenue service until the aforementioned issue and all issues have been corrected and an additional ride check is performed by CPUC staff," Malashenko said in her letter.
Allison explained the problem in an interview.
The ten cars "are all connected, and they communicate with the control car in the front like a big caterpillar with a brain," Allison said.
"When the test run arrived at Bayfair Station, instead of recognizing all ten cars, it went into safe mode in which it recognized only three and locked out control of the seven cars in the back," the spokesman said.
"Safe mode" means that only the first three cars are under the operator's control. The rationale is that these cars are closest to the operator and the operator can closely monitor them, he said.
"What we don't know is what triggered it," Allison said.
BART engineers and technical staff from Bombardier Inc., the manufacturer, are working to find out what went wrong, the spokesman said.
The problem must be identified and fixed "before we can assess the impact, if any, on the planned operation of the cars in passenger service around Thanksgiving," Allison said in an email.
The agency had set Nov. 23 as the deadline to roll out passenger service on some of the new trains.
Realistically speaking, the best-case scenario would probably be fixing the problem, passing another test and getting final approval from the utilities commission the week of Nov. 20, Allison said.
That would mean the agency would just squeak in to get passenger service started by Nov. 23, Allison said.
Allison acknowledged that the process could stretch into December.
The timing is at the discretion of the utilities commission, he said.