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When Bay Area Rapid Transit was dreamt up in the 1950s and 60s, the train system was initially expected to be fully automated. But even now, in the age of driverless vehicles, the hundreds of train cars that shuttle passengers between the 48 BART stations are still guided by human operators.

There is a high level of automation, however. Trains mostly move by themselves, and the doors automatically open when they arrive at a station. But operators switch into manual mode when issues arise, choose when to close the doors once all limbs, sweatshirt sleeves and shopping bags are safely inside, and summon emergency responders when necessary.

After eight years on the job, operator Damian Lacey says he assumes his position will be obsolete sometime in the near future, but for now he believes he acts as an important “failsafe.”

Monday was Transit Driver Appreciation Day, and BART opened operator cabs to members of the media. Berkeleyside reporter Natalie Orenstein and videographer Chris Polydoroff took a ride around the system, joining Lacey and BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost on the stretch between Lake Merritt and Daly City.

In between making station announcements — and stopping the train when a young person carrying a skateboard ventured scarily close to the edge of the platform — Lacey shared what he likes about his job and what’s challenging.

On what he does exactly

Most people think we’re just sitting up here pushing a button. We’re constantly monitoring the trackway. We see things, we report stuff that we see, we’re constantly getting intercom calls from passengers. We do a lot of troubleshooting on the fly. I’m always observing the platform.

The train is run in automatic mode, so they start and stop by themselves. Every now and again we do have to operate manually. Any time there’s an emergency in the car, we have to get involved and notify Central. They’re not every day, but they do happen pretty frequently. We don’t render aid, but if someone has a seizure, if someone faints, if someone’s bleeding, they’re going to ask me to go back and check on the person, and make a determination whether they need medical help.

We work hard, we try to accommodate passengers and get them to where they need to go on time. We don’t always do that, but we do try our best.

Smiling bearded man in sun glasses and a BART operator uniform stands on a train platform
Damian Lacey has been a BART operator for eight years. He previously worked for the U.S. Postal Service. Photo: Chris Polydoroff

On his favorite part

Honestly, it’s working by myself [laughs]. There’s a certain level of freedom not having a boss breathing down your neck in the office over from you. It’s nice — my boss is a voice on the radio!

It’s also nice to help someone, and get them to where they need to go. When someone thanks me at the end of the ride, that’s always nice too. We don’t get that all that often, maybe once a month.

On safety and security

BART, by and large, I would say is safe. I feel safe coming to work. I think the biggest public safety issue we have going right now is cellphone thefts. They’re going to wait till the doors are closing to snatch your phone and run off. Then the train’s already leaving.

I see a lot more drug use. That’s grown worse than in the past. People shooting up on trains, smoking on trains. I’d like to see all operators eventually be certified in CPR, just because we do have quite a bit of drug use. If someone were to OD on the train…

If I see it, I’m going to say something to them. Unfortunately this operator badge is not a [police] badge.

Bearded, uniformed man sits at control panel.
Damian Lacey monitors the track as he guides a train toward Daly City. Photo: Chris Polydoroff

On his most harrowing experience

Coming into Civic Center once, I noticed someone laying down in the trackway. It was at least four car-lengths away from me, so I wasn’t near actually hitting them. I’m just glad I saw them, they were actually pretty hard to see. I was able to stop in time.

They got up and crawled out of the trackway. I reported it to Central, I repositioned, and we rode manual very slowly. It definitely threw me for a loop. I didn’t make contact with the person, but it was still pretty shocking. Central even asked if I felt okay to operate to the end of the line. You feel that kind of pit-in-the-stomach feeling, but I was okay to operate and that’s all that mattered.

That’s not every day — it was once in my eight years.

On full automation

They’d have to make huge technological changes. Things do go wrong. If there’s a bad track circuit, the train’s dead in the water.  It’s just going to sit there, and you don’t want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere. I have to believe that in the future, the technology will be there, but BART’s a huge system. Running along freeways, there are intrusions in the track system. That’s happened in the past, where cars from the freeway end up in the trackway.

On the new trains

I’m certified to operate the new trains — about 80% of operators are. It’s essentially the same job, but they have different names for things. The codes are different. On the new fleet, we can now tell which car is the problem car — the annunciator has two screens now. Whereas with the legacy fleet, it’s only when something happens in your lead car. You have to physically go back and find them.

On The Big One

If that happens, about all we can do is stop the train.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...