Bill Wattenburg’s Background: BART—Bay Area Rapid Transit System


Wattenburg’s two-year running battle with the BART agency appears to be the first time he publicly confronted a government agency as a scientist. We found over fifty-five press reports with his name involved with this subject during the period 1972 to 1974. Some of the history we summarize below comes from a U.S. Dept. of Transportation (DOT) internal report we obtained from a congressional staff member. DOT was evidently funding BART and concerned about Wattenburg’s highly publicized criticisms of BART management.

The State of California asked Wattenburg to fix the electronic train control problems that plagued the new Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART). BART and Westinghouse Corp. engineers who designed the system insisted that there were no problems and essentially told the State of California safety officials to go to hell. BART claimed that the state safety officials were needlessly preventing Bay Area commuters from getting full benefit of the BART system.

With the encouragement of exasperated state officials, Wattenburg, acting only as a taxpayer, confronted the local BART managers at their bi-weekly public meetings for two years running while many of his public predictions of safety problems came true. BART management was eventually fired, and the State demanded that Wattenburg’s clever design modifications be installed before the BART system could run full service. The press confirmed that Wattenburg refused all payment from BART and the State for his efforts.

During this nationally publicized battle, Wattenburg first described many of his design improvements for BART to the press and over KGO Radio in terms that the lay public could understand. It became a popular game for his listeners to know more—and sooner—about BART design problems than the BART engineers. He generated press headlines the next day for months on end. His radio shows and the subsequent press stories each week carried his predictions of the next problem or accident that would occur on BART—and they invariably happened on schedule. He literally intimidated the incompetent BART management out of office with the power of talk radio.

Here is a summary of the sequence of events:

BART as an independent agency experienced some early safety problems with a new electronic train control system built by Westinghouse Corp. One train ran away during trial runs of the new BART system. BART and Westinghouse engineers insisted that this was a “one in a hundred-million failure that could never happen again.” BART would not cooperate with state agencies that wanted to investigate these problems before giving BART approval to operate the trains.

The noted California legislative analyst, A. Alan Post, enlisted U. C. Berkeley Professor Bill Wattenburg to evaluate the design of the BART automated train control system designed by Westinghouse. Wattenburg subsequently testified at a state senate committee hearing that he had found some serious design flaws in the Westinghouse design and warned that the system was unsafe to operate. Westinghouse and BART both protested vehemently that Wattenburg was unqualified in the field and that he was “just a headline grabbing radio talk-show host and only a junior faculty member at Berkeley looking to impress his students.”

Wattenburg was the sole expert witness for the state. Seven senior Westinghouse and BART executives told the confused state senators that Wattenburg was wrong.

A flurry of front-page stories report that Wattenburg then responded by offering a list of the most probable dangerous failures that would occur in the BART system that could lead to collisions between high-speed trains. He even estimated the time periods for when these failures would likely occur. BART and Westinghouse engineers were furious. They denied that any of these failures could ever happen. Both BART and Westinghouse threatened to “take legal action against Wattenburg if he persisted in making inflammatory statements that destroyed the public’s confidence in the BART system.”

Wattenburg’s answer to the BART threats was to give a quote to Herb Caen, the most widely read columnist on the west coast. The item appeared the next day in the San Francisco Chronicle. Wattenburg said that if the BART train control system was not fixed, it would be “the world’s most expensive, computer-controlled, track-mounted pinball machine.” The battle lines were drawn. Bay Area readers who were riding BART were shocked by the front-page stories that appeared the next day.

The first of Wattenburg’s predictions actually occurred the following week as the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) inspectors were monitoring the BART operation. They discovered that trains disappeared at certain times from the master control panel. Central controllers didn’t know where some trains were on the tracks for several minutes at a time. This meant that the automated train control system could be telling one train to speed right into another train parked ahead—a train that it didn’t know about. This is the most dangerous situation that can happen on any railroad.

Naturally, the PUC and the press swarmed all over Wattenburg to explain why he was able to predict that this would happen. He told them he could only show them with “a little experiment,” and that BART would have to cooperate to let him demonstrate the cause of the problem. BART objected. The PUC threatened to shut BART down completely unless BART could identify the problem or prove it was corrected immediately. Bart allowed Wattenburg to do his experiment.

Wattenburg led everyone to a section of unused BART track early on a foggy morning. He pointed to the rusty surface on the normally shiny track. He motioned for a waiting train to move forward. He told a PUC inspector to call his colleagues waiting at BART central. Wattenburg said: “I’ll bet they can’t see that train right now.” The reporters watched the PUC inspector get the word from BART central and then nod that Wattenburg was right.

Next, Wattenburg ordered the train to run back and forth over this stretch of track several times. He announced: “Now they can see the train.” The PUC inspector on the portable phone confirmed that he was right again. Then Wattenburg gave them the answer and how he was able to predict the problem.

He explained that he had first noticed that the Westinghouse designers had used very low-voltage (less than a volt) to shunt a current across the rails through the steel wheels and axle of a train. This shunt signal is what tells central control that a train is at a given location. Standard train control systems use a much higher voltage, like 15 volts. He explained how this low-voltage scheme probably worked very well in the nice, clean Westinghouse factory where they tested their new design. But it doesn’t rain inside the factory. When it rains, or there is heavy fog, the shiny steel rails take on a thin layer of rust very quickly. The rusty surface has a much higher electrical resistance that clean rails. The low voltage cannot drive a current through the rusty surface on the rails. Hence, there is no signal of where the train is on the tracks.

Then, according to the press reports, he made another seemingly arrogant prediction. He told them that a train would only disappear when:

  1. The track had not been used for several hours during rain or heavy fog, and
  2. The missing train would be the first or second train to use the track after the unused period during which the track had been exposed to rain or fog.

“Other than that,” he said, “the BART system was marginally safe and riders shouldn’t worry.”

The PUC inspectors rushed to check their records of past missing trains. BART public relations issued a press release saying that Wattenburg was trying to “dazzle the press with scientific hocus-pocus.” The Bay Area papers all included the BART accusation in their stories.

The PUC confirmed that Wattenburg was right two days later. Trains had only disappeared on the BART tracks in the early mornings after it had rained or been very foggy the night before, and it was almost always the first or second train over the tracks. But, there was one case in which a third train had been missing for short intervals as well.

BART public relations next tried to suggest that everything that Wattenburg said shouldn’t be believed because he had not been accurate about how many trains were required to clean the tracks so that BART could run safely. When the press asked Wattenburg for his comments on this, he said: “Well, I guess I screwed up on that third train. I’ll have to take back what I said. The system is not as safe as I thought it was.”

BART soon announced that it had solved the missing train problem by installing special “scrubbers” on its trains. (The scrubbers were nothing more than pieces of metal dragged along the track to scrape off the rust.) BART would run special “pilot” trains every morning to make sure the tracks were clean before passenger trains moved onto the tracks. Their press release stated that no one could have predicted this problem because “the special rails that they had ordered for this futuristic system had never before been tested.”

Wattenburg countered with his usual stinging sarcasm: “This is really a futuristic system, alright. I wonder if anyone ever reminded them that in the eighteen-hundreds the cities used to hire boys to walk along behind horse-drawn carriages to scoop up the horse manure so it wouldn’t blow in the citizens’ faces?”

He then announced his next challenge. He said that he had had his electrical engineering students at Berkeley design a simple battery-powered electronic package that any BART rider could carry along with him on the train to make sure that the train control system knew where the train was at all times. “I mean these are my undergraduate students. They don’t know enough yet to design anything fancy. So, it’s cheap and it works great. Just ask the PUC inspectors. I’ll bet they were wondering why train number 102 never disappeared this morning even though it rained last night.”

A reporter hinted that one of Wattenburg’s students had been on that train. The story reported that the device his students had built was nothing more than a radio frequency noise generator that messed up the normal train control signals in the track immediately below the train wherever it went. This caused the train control error detection circuits to report a problem at that location. This created a moving problem indicator with the train number on it to appear on the central control screen. Hence, the error indicator told central control where the train was at all times.

Westinghouse engineers immediately complained that this scheme would disable their error detection circuits and endanger the whole BART system. Wattenburg countered with: “Why in the hell do you need error detection electronics when you know the whole damn system is broken down all the time anyway without even asking? Why not put these unemployed circuits to work so that we can get some people to work for a change?”

The PUC wanted to test the device immediately. BART threatened to have Wattenburg arrested if he took any electronic device on a train that interfered with the train control system. Wattenburg offered the press an estimate of how long it would be before the BART track scrubbers would cut so much metal off the rails that they would have to be replaced. A later story suggested that the PUC did test Wattenburg’s device and BART agreed to use it so long as the PUC ordered BART to do so and Wattenburg agreed to say no more about it. However, Westinghouse notified BART that all its warranties would be voided if any foreign device was installed or used without their permission. It’s not clear what happened thereafter, but the missing train problem did suddenly disappear—at least from the press coverage.

After this episode, the press evidently began to believe that Wattenburg was for real. The stories that followed looked into both his background and the qualifications of the Westinghouse designers.

A reporter discovered that NASA had hired Wattenburg in 1963 to 1967 to do extensive design work on the electronic control and computer systems for the Apollo man-to-the moon project. Westinghouse and BART had earlier claimed that their engineers had worked on the Apollo project to support their claims to the state senate committee that they were “the world’s experts on advanced automated control systems of this nature and that no one else was qualified to evaluate the BART train control design.” Press stories verified that the Westinghouse engineers who were later assigned to the BART project had actually worked several levels below Wattenburg’s design responsibility in NASA. (Evidently, Legislative Analyst A. Alan Post had known this when he first contacted Wattenburg for help.)

When one irritated reporter asked Wattenburg why he had not told the press for months about his NASA experience, he answered: “You should have asked me. I noticed that you print every handout that the BART bullshitters give you, so why should I bother to tell you the truth.” This newspaper later ran an editorial which indirectly apologized to Wattenburg for some of the snide stories about him that their reporter had filed after he first challenged BART before the state senate committee.

After the dramatic sequence of events described above, the PUC refused permission for BART to operate their trains at designed speeds until all of Wattenburg’s technical objections were investigated. More state senate hearings were called. Wattenburg appeared at the next hearing with alarming data from some more experiments that he had done on his own. BART and Westinghouse again protested that he had interfered without their permission. Wattenburg described how he had given his engineering students who ride BART some simple instruments that measured BART train control signals without interfering with the operation in any way. Then he described several more design changes that should be made to the train control electronics to make the system safer.

At this dramatic hearing, he gave his new design documents to the state senate committee and the Legislative Analyst and asked them to hand these documents to the irate BART General Manager, Billy Stokes, who was sitting in the hearing room with a group of Westinghouse executives. One story reported that Wattenburg turned to Billy Stokes and announced: “Here’s a present for you. Be my guest. That’ll fix the hundred million dollar screw job you guys have given the taxpayers.”

The public standoff escalated when the BART District Directors were told by their General Manager that Wattenburg was part of a political conspiracy to discredit the District and this was the only reason he was trying to embarrass the BART and Westinghouse engineers. This made headlines. Wattenburg appeared at the next public BART board meeting and requested to speak as a taxpayer. One group of concerned BART directors demanded that he be allowed to speak at all meetings as a public representative and rebut anything he felt was not accurate in what the general manager and the BART engineers were telling the directors.

The state officials could not direct BART to take any specific action to correct the alleged problems, but through the California PUC they could and did withhold permission for BART to operate their trains at full speed until the safety problems were resolved. A majority of the BART directors refused to allow Wattenburg to test his ideas or order Westinghouse to make the simple changes that Wattenburg had specified. The argument was that this would violate the warranties in the Westinghouse contract and open up BART to lawsuits from both Westinghouse and the taxpayers. Almost weekly front-page stories in the San Francisco Chronicle and other Bay Area papers detail how BART was forced to operate their new trains under severe restrictions that guaranteed that trains could not collide if the train control system malfunctioned.

More serious problems and near accidents did occur over the next six months. These were witnessed by PUC inspectors stationed in BART central control. Some of these were on the list that Wattenburg had originally given to the state senate committee and A. Alan Post. Wattenburg appeared at every BART board meeting and battled with the BART and Westinghouse engineers. Wattenburg challenged the credentials of three successive chief engineers at BART. All of them left or were fired. These confrontations became the media event of the week for the press as the controversy raged.

The matter finally came to a head when BART ran out of money and had to appeal to the state for financial assistance to operate the system. The State Senate Transportation Committee headed by Senator Alfred Alquist demanded that Billy Stokes be fired as a condition for approval of any state funds. Wattenburg was in attendance. A story reports that he stood up and announced to Mr. Stokes: “I told you that the truth would catch up with you, you lying bastard.” (Wattenburg had earlier called Stokes a liar at several public BART meetings when Stokes and his chief engineers gave engineering reports to the board members that Wattenburg proved were false or incomplete. Stokes had been forced to apologize for these “oversights”. The chief engineers were replaced shortly thereafter.)

The state legislature finally passed a law that required elected board members for BART as a condition for state financial assistance. All the Billy Stokes supporters on the BART board were replaced in the election. Wattenburg refused requests that he run for the board or agree to be the new general manager (two papers editorialized that he should serve). The new board immediately ordered BART engineers to incorporate Wattenburg’s design changes into the train control system. Wattenburg recommended that BART hire the University of California Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory to supervise the design modifications. BART hired Hewlett-Packard Corporation to build and install the equipment.

Wattenburg issued a press release in which he stated that he had done all he could and that he wanted nothing more to do with BART other than ride the trains when they could “safely move faster that he could walk.”

Hewlett-Packard and Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory were paid over two million dollars for their work over the next two years which consisted mostly of installing improved versions of the train control design changes that Wattenburg had originally specified. There were press reports that Hewlett Packard engineers later insisted that all the new design changes were their own ideas and that this created some friction between them and Lawrence Berkeley scientists who claimed otherwise. Wattenburg refused to get into the argument or comment to the press. His only comment was that he “never wanted to hear about BART again.”

The new BART board filed suit against Westinghouse after the design changes proved to solve the missing train problem and other safety problems. The PUC allowed them to run trains at design speeds for the first time in five years. Wattenburg agreed to testify for BART if requested. Westinghouse settled the suit for a reported sixteen million dollars.

When the press inquired whether Wattenburg had received any payment for his services over two years, he gave them the following statement: “Hell, if I had even asked for a free ride on their silly trains somebody would have claimed that I did it just to get a handout. The taxpayers of the State of California gave me a great education. All I want is for them to know that I paid them back in full.”

Some BART directors suggested offering Wattenburg $50,000 for his services after his solution to the BART train control problem was adopted. He declined, saying that he might have to criticize them again in the future if they didn’t do their job.

The Dept. of Transportation internal report points out that another real beneficiary of Wattenburg’s efforts is the Washington D.C. Metro system. All of Wattenburg’s design improvements were incorporated into the Metro system before it was opened. As a consequence, the Metro did not suffer the long delays and safety problems that BART suffered. The author of this report notes the curious fact that Westinghouse had to have been making some of these changes in the Metro equipment they delivered to Washington even while they were still insisting that Wattenburg’s changes were not necessary in the BART system. Otherwise, there would have been long delays in starting operation in Washington. The writer suggests that DOT might consider some sort of recognition to Wattenburg for his contribution to the mass transit industry in the U.S.

It is not surprising that such recognition never came. We talked to a long-time BART employee who was on the scene at the time all this happened. He said that the new general manager selected for BART was none other than the former Secretary of Transportation who had given some support to Billy Stokes during his battles with Wattenburg, and that Billy Stokes himself moved upstairs as the new Director of the Urban Mass Transit Association (UMTA) representing such companies as Westinghouse. The UMTA and DOT officials work very closely together.

During our visits to this KGO radio show in October 1990, several callers to his show wanted to talk about the most recent problems with the BART system. He absolutely refused to discuss the subject on his show. He said to one caller, “I’ll tell you what though, why don’t you ask me about my first wife?”

This page was last modified on .