Safety first: Behind the scenes as BART weighed tsunami impact

Many BART customers faced an uncertain morning commute Friday as the transit agency, which runs trains under the San Francisco Bay through the Transbay Tube, weighed the impact the tsunami from the earthquake that hit Japan could have on the safety of riders.

“Admittedly, when I first, head the news, my first instinct, as I’m sure was the case for many in the Bay Area, was shock and concern for victims of the tragedy. We live in earthquake country and our hearts go out to all the people affected by this disaster,” BART Chief Communications Officer Linton Johnson said. “It is a devastating reminder of the kind of havoc that nature can wreak and why it is important to be as prepared as possible.”

“Simply put, water, passengers and the 1000 volts of electricity that power our trains just don’t mix,” BART Chief Engineer Don Allen said.  “We’ve never had to deal with a tsunami warning of this size.  We didn’t know exactly what impact the tsunami would have on BART so we took the cautious approach and warned riders that we would stop service if key indicators such as the size and strength of the waves were great enough to pose a threat to the safety of our customers, our employees and our facilities.”

Moments after the news about the tsunami broke, senior BART officials put the agency on standby and by 1:50 am Chief Transportation Officer Rudy Crespo had activated the Emergency Operations Center in order to call in top staff to help determine the potential impact a tsunami of this size could have on BART and its customers.

“We didn’t have much time to make decisions with the morning commute just a few hours from starting,” Crespo said. “While we have general guidelines to deal with these emergency situations, they cannot address every scenario.  Therefore, we found ourselves in uncharted territory.  We took the cautious approach and told passengers we might shut down service if we learned the currents or the waves were getting too strong and could damage our electrical facilities.”

“The first thing that went through my mind was to quickly get the word about our service plans to our customers so they’d have as much advanced warning as possible to make a decision on whether to choose BART or another option to get to work,” Johnson said. “While I worked with Rudy, Don and the others to determine what we would tell our customers about how this tsunami would affect their commute, my team scrambled to prepare all the systems we use to communicate that message, including our social media channels, the BART website, text and email alerts along with the notification system we use to notify the media.”

The best source of breaking news from BART is the BART website. You can also sign up to receive BART service advisories by email at or text “BART delays” to 878787 for on-demand service advisories via SMS.

When the tsunami was estimated to hit Crescent City in far Northern California, BART officials were monitoring wave size there. Waves of 10 feet or higher were the target for what might prompt a closure. If the waves were below 8 feet, it was decided that service would continue running — with a constant eye to any changes.

Ultimately BART received word from USGS seismologists that the imminent threat of a tsunami was over.  We deactivated our Emergency Operations Center at around 11:40 am and continued to stay in close contact with our tsunami experts and continued to monitor the situation.


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