OAKLAND -- BART has begun testing its sleek, driverless trains that will whiz riders between the Coliseum station and Oakland International Airport beginning in November.
This week, the transit agency ran all four of the Oakland Airport Connector trains simultaneously on the new elevated tracks, which will provide the first rail connection to the airport. The tram uses automated three-car trains pulled by cables set inside a steel guideway held up by concrete columns.
"It's going to be like riding on a cloud," said project and operations manager Dean Hurst of Doppelmayr, a ropeway technology company based in Austria. "The trains are lighter, the guideway is lighter (and) the availability is easier because you have a controlled environment."
The sophisticated system is the only one of its kind that Doppelmayr has built. The trains do not have engines. Instead, four big wheels pulling the cables that the trains run on are located in a facility building in the middle of the line, which makes the trains quiet and easier to work on.
The airport connector will serve two stations. Riders can hop on a train every four to five minutes in the airport parking lot or at a platform connected by a bridge to Coliseum station.
"Between the Coliseum and the airport and back, there's nine intersections and traffic can vary every day," said Tom Dunscombe, the project manager. "(The new trains) are going to get you reliably from door to door in about 12 to 14 minutes."
Rides on the AirBART buses that run between BART and the airport typically take 10 to 20 minutes depending on traffic. The trains will replace the bus service.
In contrast to the new rail link, the buses are a hassle for the nearly 700,000 yearly passengers who have to leave the station and wait in line to buy a ticket and tow their luggage on the bus while scrabbling to pay the $3 one-way fares.
BART officials project that about 900,000 riders a year will use the connector. The standard fare will be $6.
The 3.2-mile line cost $484 million, a steep price that drew criticism. Critics contended that upgraded buses could have made the connection far more cheaply.
Transportation managers, however, say the update will make the region more connected by allowing passengers to take a seamless trip from BART to the tram to the airport.
"It's a big investment in the area, and I think the thought behind it is that the Oakland airport is used by nearly 10 million people a year. It's a major destination," Dunscombe said. "We hope that they can increase their usage of the area."
Talks of the connector between BART and the Oakland airport began in 1970. After decades of studies, the ball got rolling in 2000, when Alameda County voters passed a transportation sales tax that allocated $89 million to the project.
Finding the remaining funds stalled the project for the next decade. In 2009, the federal government withdrew $70 million after officials determined that the agency failed to reach out to low-income and minority communities. The decision snowballed into advocates arguing that money would be better spent on other transit needs.
"I've been a fervent critic in the past," said Robert Raburn, BART director for District 4. "It was just the overall project, whether this is the best means of getting people to the airport. Once that decision was made, I was surrounded by pros. I want to make sure the project is delivered."
BART is set to complete the project on time and within budget. The airport connector will undergo more tests leading to the November opening in time for the holidays.