OAKLAND (KPIX 5) — BART passengers traveling through the East Bay often ride through a strange twist of history that they may not even notice. It is a turn that tells a tale of just how messy and complicated a job it can be to construct a transit system and how seemingly minor decisions can change the course of commuters for generations.
Just beneath the streets of downtown Oakland is a critical part of BART called the Oakland Wye. It is basically the interchange of all BART lines that run through the East Bay. It is notorious for tight turns, slow trains and a number of problems over the years, including a couple of derailments.
But the Oakland Wye is also the source of a great BART legend: that moving trains beneath these streets is so difficult, in part, because of a political favor granted in the early 60s.
“Uh, well, it’s true,” laughed Mike Healey. If anyone could verify the truth, it would be Healy; he was BART’s spokesman from before day one, he has written a book on BART’s history and he says the legend of the hardware turn is true.
“It’s absolutely true,” Healey said. “John Houlihan, who was the mayor of Oakland at the time, had a friend who owned a store, it was a hardware store.”
That store, Simon Hardware Store, was a four-story shopping extravaganza that sat on the 800 block of Broadway in the early 1960s. It had been there since its grand opening in 1937, but that prime location, Broadway between 8th and 9th Streets, put it right in the path of BART’s original underground plans.
“BART was going to have to basically take the hardware store,” Healey explained. “Houlihan objected to that and said he was going to be opposed to BART coming in there, at all, unless they changed the design.”
Most of the people who drew up the plans for BART are no longer around to tell the story, but their work certainly is, and evidence of a critical change of course is right in there. The original designs show the tunnel from Lake Merritt to downtown Oakland beneath 8th St.
“Yeah, it was originally over under 8th St. and they had to move it,” said Healey. “And they moved it enough to make that turn a critical turn. But the issue was that it required a much sharper turn.”
The 8th St. tunnel? It never happened. Instead, BART moved the entire tunnel one block over, cutting under 9th St. While the new, sharper turn narrowly avoided the hardware store, it forced trains to reduce speed every time they come through that portion of the Oakland Wye.
It is something passengers can still feel all of these years later: that familiar slowdown and hard right turn, just before you reach the 12th St. station.
“You can hear the screech of the flanges on the wheels, you know, scraping against the rail,” said Healey, describing the sounds frequent BART passengers might recognize in that stretch of tunnel.
As for why Mayor Houlihan was so determined to save the hardware store, maybe it was a favor to his friend, or maybe he thought it was important to save a major downtown business. Either way, it didn’t work out for anyone.
“The hardware went out of business about six months later,” said Healey.
Nearly 50 years later, the hardware turn remains. BART has made progress on reducing the squeal of the wheels on the turn, but the need to reduce speeds remains. Trains that could be going closer to 30 mph are often traveling slower than 20 mph to accommodate a hardware store that never even lived to see BART’s opening day.