Transbay Tube

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Transbay Tube
Toward the Transbay Tube.jpg
View into the Transbay Tube
Location San Francisco Bay, California, US
Coordinates Oakland portal:
37°48′32″N 122°18′58″W / 37.80889°N 122.31611°W / 37.80889; -122.31611
System Bay Area Rapid Transit
Start Embarcadero Station, San Francisco
End West Oakland Station, Oakland
No. of stations None
Opened September 16, 1974
Owner San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District
Operator San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District
Character Rapid transit
Line length 3.6 mi (5.8 km)
No. of tracks 2
Track gauge 5 ft 6 in (1,676 mm)
(Indian gauge)
Electrified Third rail, 1000 V DC
Highest elevation Sea level
Lowest elevation 135 ft (41 m) below sea level

The Transbay Tube is an underwater rail tunnel which carries Bay Area Rapid Transit's four transbay lines under San Francisco Bay between the cities of San Francisco and Oakland in California. The tube is 3.6 miles (5.8 km) long; including the approaches from the nearest stations (one of which is underground), it totals 6 miles (10 km) in length. It has a maximum depth of 135 feet (41 m) below sea level.

The tube was constructed on land, transported to the site, then submerged and fastened to the bottom (mostly by packing the sides with sand and gravel). This immersed tube technique is in contrast to bored tunneling, where rock is removed to leave a passage.

All BART lines except the Richmond–Fremont line operate through the Transbay Tube, making it one of the busiest sections of the system in terms of passenger and train traffic. During peak commute times, over 28,000 passengers per hour travel through the tunnel[1] with headways as low as 2.5 minutes.[2]

According to a 2010 survey by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Transbay Tube is the noisiest part of the BART system, with sound pressure levels inside the train reaching 100 decibels (comparable to a jackhammer).[3] The noise, which according to BART "has been compared to banshees, screech owls, or Doctor Who's TARDIS run amok" is exacerbated by the concrete enclosure and the fact that tracks are curved when the tunnel crosses beneath the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, causing a high-pitched screeching sound.[3] In 2015, after replacing 6,500 feet and grinding down (smoothing) 3 miles of rail in the tube, BART reported a reduction of noise and positive feedback from riders.[4]

Conception and construction[edit]

The idea of an underwater rail tunnel traversing San Francisco Bay was suggested by the San Francisco eccentric, Emperor Norton, in two proclamations that he issued in 1872.[5][6] Official consideration to the idea was first given in October 1920 by Major General George Washington Goethals, the builder of the Panama Canal. The alignment of Goethals's proposed tube is almost exactly the same as today's Transbay Tube. In 1947, a joint Army-Navy Commission recommended an underwater tube as a means of relieving automobile congestion on the then-ten-year-old Bay Bridge.[7]

Seismic studies commenced in 1959, construction was started in 1965, and the tube was completed in 1969. The tracks and electrification needed for the trains were finished in 1973, and the tube was opened to service in 1974. The structure is made of 57 individual sections that were built on land and towed out into the bay by a large barge. They were then positioned above where they were to sit, and lowered into a trench packed with soft soil, mud, and gravel for leveling along the bay's bottom. Once the sections were in place, bulkheads at each end of each of the sections were removed and a protective layer of sand and gravel was packed against the sides. The project cost approximately $180 million in 1970 (equivalent to $1.91 billion in 2015[8]).[citation needed]

During construction, the Transbay Tube was also used briefly as a shooting location for the ending of George Lucas's film THX 1138. The final vertical climb out to daylight was actually filmed, with the camera rotated 90°, in the incomplete (and decidedly horizontal) Transbay Tube. The scene was filmed before installation of the track supports, with Robert Duvall's character using exposed reinforcing bars as a ladder.[citation needed]

The western terminus of the tube directly connects to the downtown Market Street Subway near the Ferry Building, north of the Bay Bridge. The tube crosses under the bridge between the San Francisco Peninsula and Yerba Buena Island, and emerges in Oakland along 7th Street, west of Interstate 880.[citation needed]

The 3.6-mile (5.8 km) Transbay Tube has required earthquake retrofitting, both on its exterior and interior. Research done years after construction showed that the fill packed around the tube might be prone to soil liquefaction during an intense earthquake, which could allow the buoyant hollow tube to break loose from its anchorages. Retrofitting work required the fill to be compacted, to make it denser and less prone to liquefaction. On the interior of the tube, BART began a major retrofitting initiative in March 2013, which involved installing heavy steel plates at various locations inside the tube that most needed strengthening, to protect them from sideways movement in an earthquake. In order to complete this work during 2013, BART closed one of the two bores of the tube early on weeknights. The work, estimated to last approximately 14 months, was completed after only 8 months of construction.[9]


In January 1979, an electrical fire occurred on a train as it was passing through the tube. One firefighter (Lt. William Elliott, 50, of the Oakland Fire Department) was killed in the effort to extinguish the blaze. Since then, safety regulations have been updated.[citation needed]

As a precaution, the tube is shut down along with the rest of the BART lines following significant earthquakes. The largest to date was the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, but the tube was found to be safe, and was reopened just six hours later. Many area highways were damaged by the event, and with the Bay Bridge closed for a month due to a section of the upper deck falling onto the lower deck on a truss section of the east span, the Transbay Tube was the only passable direct way between San Francisco and Oakland.[citation needed]


In 2007, as BART celebrated the 50th anniversary of its creation, it announced its plans for the next 50 years. Its vision includes a new separate four-bore Transbay Tube beneath San Francisco Bay that would run parallel to and south of the existing tunnel. The new tunnel would emerge at the Transbay Transit Center to provide connecting service to Caltrain and the planned California High Speed Rail (HSR) system. The four-bore tunnel would provide two additional tunnels for BART trains, and two tunnels for conventional/high-speed rail (the BART system and conventional US rail use different and incompatible rail gauges and operate under different sets of safety regulations). In the terminal, there would be 6 tracks: 4 for HSR and 2 for Caltrain.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Case for a Second Transbay Transit Crossing" (PDF). Bay Area Council Economic Institute. February 2016. p. 7. 
  2. ^ Mallett, Zakhary (September 7, 2014). "2nd Transbay Tube needed to help keep BART on track". San Francisco Chronicle. 
  3. ^ a b Cabanatuan, Michael (2010-09-07). "Noise on BART: How bad is it and is it harmful?". SFGate. Retrieved 2016-04-22. 
  4. ^ "Riders notice a quieter ride following first of two tube shutdowns". 2015-08-13. Retrieved 2016-04-22. 
  5. ^ Emperor Norton (June 15, 1872). "Proclamation". The Pacific Appeal. p. 1 – via California Digital Newspaper Collection. 
    ——— (September 21, 1872). "Proclamation". The Pacific Appeal. p. 1 – via California Digital Newspaper Collection. 
  6. ^ Lumea, John. "An Earlier Tunnel Proclamation". The Emperor's Bridge Campaign – via Facebook. [dead link]
  7. ^ Bay Area Rapid Transit District (n.d.). "History of the Tube". Bay Area Rapid Transit District. Archived from the original on March 29, 2013. 
  8. ^ United States nominal Gross Domestic Product per capita figures follow the Measuring Worth series supplied in Johnston, Louis; Williamson, Samuel H. (2016). "What Was the U.S. GDP Then?". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved April 10, 2016.  These figures follow the figures as of 2015.
  9. ^ "Transbay Tube Retrofit Work Wraps Up Early Ending Late Night Single Tracking" (Press release). Bay Area Rapid Transit District. December 2, 2013. Retrieved February 5, 2014. 
  10. ^ Cabanatuan, Michael (June 22, 2007). "BART's New Vision: More, Bigger, Faster". San Francisco Chronicle. p. A1. Retrieved April 17, 2008. 

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