A collage of images from BART newsletters, including clowns and a tiger.
Pictures from two decades of BARTalk newsletters.

Did you know that BART employees used to get big bonuses for coming up with ideas that saved the transit authority money?

Resourceful city workers whose insights were rewarded are immortalized in the pages of BARTalk, the organization’s old newsletter, alongside fun events in BART history, features on rarely acknowledged jobs, and details about the much-anticipated annual picnic. Now, thanks to an unofficial project by BART enthusiast Vincent Woo, two decades of the newsletter have been digitized and are available online for public perusal.

“I’m really into industry newsletters,” Woo laughed. “I find them so charming. You get to hear things you aren’t allowed to hear.”

Woo, an amateur photographer and founder of tech platform CoderPad, first became interested in BARTalk while working on his previous project, the documentary “Tunnel Vision: An Unauthorized BART Ride.”

The film features footage taken — admittedly without any express permission — from the front of a yellow-line train, alongside vignettes from BART’s history. It was on this project that Woo met Mike Healy, BART’s spokesperson for some 32 years, who shared some of his stories in an interview.

Woo discovered that Healy had kept old copies of BARTalk, from 1981 to 2003, in a milk crate in his house. Healy lent the documents to Woo, who scanned them at the hacker collective Noisebridge using a device built by local engineer Dany Qumsiyeh. Then came the grueling task of editing some 600 pages for upload to the Internet Archive.

The slim blue-and-gray newsletters were put together by a team of two staffers and a contractor, according to Healy, and ran from the early 1970s to the mid-2000s. “They were released each month as a way to keep employees apprised,” he said. “They were always enjoyed.”

Woo said that projects showing BART in a positive light are increasingly necessary as the transit authority navigates its dire financial situation.

Before the pandemic struck, BART raised over 70 percent of its revenue from its own operations, such as passenger fares and parking fees. Last year, it generated just 21 percent of its own revenue. Emergency federal funds make up much of the difference, and they are set to run out by 2025.

“It pisses me off that we can’t agree that this is a social good that shouldn’t necessarily be funded just through operating revenue,” said Woo.

“The newsletters come from this parallel universe where BART is taken as a common good. They are dispatches from another world.”

One of Woo’s favorite recurring features was the internal efficiency program, which rewarded workers for coming up with money-saving ideas. In 2003, train operator Demetrius Arnold worked out a new way of tracking employee schedules; he saved BART more than $23,000 and pocketed an award of $5,980.

One engineer, Keith Carr, won more than $22,000 for decreasing resistance on a track’s third rail, saving the authority over $1.3 million over the rail’s 30-year lifespan — the largest payout among the digitized records.

Today, the reward scheme is no longer running: “While we don’t offer employees money for efficiency ideas, we do still ask employees to submit ideas on how we can save money and operate more efficiently,” said a BART representative. The BARTalk newsletter is also gone, having been replaced by an internal website for employee news.

BART offered employees cash awards for coming up with ideas to make BART more efficient.

On top of the employee commendations, the old newsletters captured some of the quirkier episodes from BART’s annals.

In 1983, a tiger called Gandhi visited BART as a guest of honor for the annual summer picnic. The editor assured readers that the hand in the picture belonged to a trainer, and was not about to be snapped up by the big cat.

Gandhi the tiger was a special guest at one annual picnic.

Clowns appear with surprising regularity throughout the years, especially during the 1980s: They showed up riding a 200-strong “clown train,” face-painting at work events, and cheerleading at fundraisers.

A 1981 article describes how BART employees improvised to keep a “clown train” on the right track. “BART had not disappointed the clowns,” the article concludes. “Our employees came through again with creative flair.”

Other features included a recurring data visualization showing whether BART was hitting its targets, an account of employees carrying the 1984 Olympic torch, and color cartoons for the Christmas editions.

BART used a recurring data visualization to let their employees know if the organization was hitting its goals. Grinning trains are great; frowning trains are best avoided.
In 1984, BART employees clubbed together to raise $3,000 to carry the Olympic torch.
The newsletter incorporated colorful cartoons each Christmas – including this one following the infamous 1989 earthquake.

“These records really reflect the times, how social mores changed,” said Woo. “There is so much there. I want people to read them and send me their favorite pages.”

You can read the newsletters on the Internet Archive. More historical documents including timelines, reports on earthquake recovery, and 30-year plans can be found on the BART website, where they were released last year to celebrate the authority’s 50th anniversary.

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DATA REPORTER. Will was born in the UK and studied English at Oxford University. After a few years in publishing, he absconded to the USA where he studied data journalism in New York. Will has strong views on healthcare, the environment, and the Oxford comma.

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