By Scott Morris, August 25, 2014
new earthquake early warning system in testing since 2012 has helped
BART keep trains running in the event of an earthquake and could have
broader applications for the public, officials said today.
The new system can give BART up to 10 seconds of notice before an
earthquake, enough time to stop a train going 30 mph and significantly
slow a train going 70 mph, preventing derailments, injuries and deaths,
BART Director John McPartland said at a news conference at the agency’s
Embarcadero station in San Francisco this afternoon.
McPartland said the system operated as intended before a
6.0-magnitude quake hit at 3:20 a.m. Sunday and caused significant
destruction in Napa and Vallejo. BART trains were not running at the
time of the quake, however, necessitating no action by the transit
The system has applications beyond warning BART of impending
earthquakes and Richard Allen of the University of California at
Berkeley Seismological Laboratory called today for state or federal
funding that would create a public early warning system.
Allen said that such a system could have many applications. While it
could not give more than seconds of warning, it could be enough to stop
motorists from driving onto a bridge, slow down traffic or even inform
an eye surgeon that it’s time to stop.
He urged California residents to contact legislators to help secure
funding for the system, which could alert the public through cellphones,
computers or even smoke detector-like devices.
“This is a critical need here in earthquake country,” Allen said.
The state Legislature passed a bill that was signed by Gov. Jerry
Brown last September calling for California’s Office of Emergency
Services to develop an early warning system, but said funding for the
system could not come from the state’s general fund and would have to
come from other sources.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, said in a statement today
that two bills moving through Congress could send resources for an early
“An earthquake early-warning system would provide crucial time to
carry out lifesaving actions,” Feinstein said. “A warning of even a
handful of seconds would allow for emergency notifications to be sent;
trains and traffic to be slowed or stopped; supplies of oil, gas and
chemicals to be turned off; nuclear plants to be safeguarded; even
elevators to be safely emptied.”
Allen said that the system can detect small amounts of energy
radiating from epicenters prior from the quake. Sensors all over
California stream data into the system, which can detect the energy and
send an early alert.
Officials from the U.S. Geological Survey said today that the test
system provided a five-second warning before Sunday’s quake hit, and
within three seconds had estimated the magnitude of the quake to be 5.7.
BART’s use of the system is the first of its kind for a transit
agency as it remains in testing, but BART officials said today that it
is only a part of a massive seismic retrofit project that has improved
earthquake safety systemwide over the last decade.
Bay Area voters approved a $980 million bond in 2004 to fund the
safety improvements and today BART has completed work on 24 of the
agency’s 34 stations and 70 of its 74 miles of tracks.
BART officials said today that the work has paid off—no
earthquake-related disruptions were reported on BART Sunday, while
Amtrak tracks through the Capitol Corridor were closed for the morning
and early afternoon for track inspections and Caltrain reported delays
throughout the morning.
BART Director James Fang called it a “magnificent indication” of what the nearly $1 billion bond was used for.
BART also recently completed retrofit work on the Transbay Tube
including flexible seismic joints, transition structures and structural
McPartland said today that the tube under the Bay is one of the safest places in the BART system in the event of an earthquake.
“That thing is just as solid as you can get,” he said.