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BART riders lobby for later service

on February 8, 2011

In his story “The Betrayed Kingdom,” 1960s countercultural writer Richard Brautigan describes a young Berkeley woman who, in order to cross the bay after a night out in San Francisco, would  flirt her way into a ride from some hopeful suitor with a car, only to announce her strict chastity as they stepped into her apartment.

Her disappointed companions “would always be too drunk to drive back to San Francisco, so they would sleep on her floor, curled around that green army blanket and wake up in the morning, stiff and grouchy as a coyote with rheumatism. Neither coffee nor breakfast was ever offered and she had gotten another ride to Berkeley.”

The story means different things to different people—it’s about love, or free love, but also feminism, and maybe cars. But reading it today, a resident of the East Bay couldn’t be blamed for observing one simple fact: much heartbreak could have been averted if only BART ran 24 hours a day.

For those without cars—and those who happen to be away from their cars—BART represents the main link between San Francisco and the East Bay. So when the last train comes through just after midnight, you’d better be on it. Depending on the day, there won’t be another one for four hours, or six, or eight.

While BART’s schedule has been the source of private grumbling since it opened in 1972, the Internet has provided a new tool, however blunt, to quantify the demand for expanded service. Since last year, advocates of a round-the-clock BART schedule have congregated on a Facebook page called “Make BART Trains run 24 Hours,” which is “liked” by more than 22,000 people.

Bill Dickenson, who created the “BART 24” Facebook page a year ago, said he hoped it would help start a dialogue between BART’s administrators and its riders. A financial worker in his 40s who lives in San Francisco, Dickenson sought a more levelheaded forum for airing transit complaints than is afforded by events like No Pants BART Ride Day and “that Critical Mass nightmare with the bicycles.”

“I basically set up the page to see how Facebook works,” Dickenson said. He and a few early followers began posting questions about BART on the page’s wall, and over the course of the last year the group’s numbers began to swell. Though Dickenson has yet to meet any of his followers in person, by last fall his group had grown enough to attract the attention of BART Board Director Bob Franklin, who contacted Dickenson in November, shortly after Franklin was elected president of the BART Board of Directors. Franklin campaigned on a willingness to modify the BART schedule, and Dickenson has called on the Facebook page for riders to be patient and support Franklin.

Dickenson’s Facebook page serves as a forum for its members to discuss transportation in general, and ruminate about BART in particular. Its followers hold in common a belief that BART can run nonstop—with sufficient funding to bring in a few drivers and a little contract negotiation to ensure they’re paid fairly. Although Dickenson acknowledges the obstacles to an expanded schedule, he says, “If the government wanted it to be a 24-hour system, it would be a 24-hour system.”

Although Dickenson’s Facebook page is new, its message is not. BART has been questioned about its schedule so often that it has devoted a page on its website to explaining why 24-hour service isn’t possible. According to the website, BART has only one set of rails, which means that the entire line must be shut down – and the electrified third rail turned off – for workers to do nightly maintenance.

Train networks with multiple sets of tracks on the same route, like New York’s subway system, are able to handle maintenance on one set of tracks while continuing service on the other. For BART, for now, that’s not an option. BART spokesman Linton Johnson cited regular track inspection and rail-grinding—to minimize noise levels when the trains run—as principal daily tasks.  Johnson says that reducing the frequency of the track inspections could jeopardize passengers’ safety.

To Dickenson, BART’s single-track limitation is a weakness that must be addressed before BART takes on any other major projects. “BART should plan to add redundant track to the existing system, before adding more stations,” he said. Construction is currently underway on extending the track to a new station in the Warm Springs district of Fremont.

But adding just one extra track to the rail network would cost billions of dollars, Franklin said, and the project would be almost as big an undertaking as building the original system. Many of BART’s above-ground tracks run between opposing stretches of freeway. To add track would require vast tracts of elevated freeways to be shifted, or even demolished and rebuilt. Widening BART’s underground tunnels, particularly the one running under the San Francisco Bay, would be at least as difficult.

Facing these limitations today, Dickenson and his Facebook followers lament that when BART was proposed and constructed in the 1960s, planners and voters missed an opportunity to build a transit network that carried everybody wherever they wanted whenever they wanted to go there. But then, as now, funds for grand transit projects were not easy to come by. According to the official history recounted on BART’s website, it was only after three years of legislative debate that BART won enough funds to avoid being built as a much smaller network than it is.

When President Lyndon Johnson presided over BART’s groundbreaking in 1964— right around the time Richard Brautigan was inventing a tease who tricked men into driving her across the Bay Bridge—there had been no transbay public transit for six years. The Key System, which ran its railcars along the lower deck of the Bay Bridge and ferries across the bay itself, closed its doors in 1958, stranding transbay commuters.

When discussions of a Bay Area Rapid Transit District began a few years later, the prospect must have been stirring, even if all the train did was get one to work and back. After all, that’s what BART was designed to do: It was a commuter rail, and in its early years it didn’t even run on the weekends. Everyone agrees that round-the-clock service would be nice, but 20 hours each day marks a major expansion of BART’s original mandate.

Franklin campaigned last fall on a platform that included a willingness to adjust the train schedule for the first time since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which forced BART into a full month of 24-hour service—the longest period of constant service in its history. (BART has also occasionally run overnight more recently: for New Year’s Eve in 1999 and 2000, for example, and of necessity for several days when the Bay Bridge closed for emergency repairs in September 2009.)

Despite the need for the daily four-hour maintenance window, Franklin says he’s open to shifting the whole schedule by up to half an hour. “To stay open a little bit later would accomplish a lot,” he said. “12:15?  That’s cutting it close if you’re going to a show, or going out for a drink.”

Franklin said he believes that BART has been relying on incomplete information to determine its schedule. “We know what the ridership is between 4 and 5 [a.m.],” he said — it’s about 3,800 riders, less than one-twentieth of the morning peak of 78,000 riders between 7 and 8 a.m. — “but we have no idea what the ridership might be between 12:30 and 1:30 [a.m.]. Maybe the ridership is better than we imagined.”

Franklin has asked his staff to evaluate possible schedule changes and their approximate costs.  Despite the large showing on Dickenson’s Facebook page, BART is unlikely to expand service if there is not enough demand to justify the costs of that expansion. Franklin estimates, for example, that if BART stayed open a half-hour later, it would cost the agency $1.5 million each year, largely because it would bear the burden of keeping its San Francisco stations staffed, patrolled, and lit after Muni closes for the night. Also, he said, passengers’ messiness increases with the lateness of the hour, so a later schedule could result in higher cleaning costs. Franklin said his staff will present its findings to the BART board and the public near the end of the month.

Franklin also said BART could expand a late-night “crossover” system, in which trains travel in both directions on a single track so that service can continue while maintenance is performed across the platform. The system requires especially careful coordination to avoid collisions, but is already in practice along a section of track in Contra Costa County.

Even if BART never runs through the night, late-night travelers have the option of taking AC Transit’s transbay 800 line, which BART board member Robert Raburn jokingly calls the “Night BART.”  The bus runs from San Francisco to the East Bay every hour through the late night, and every half hour on Friday and Saturday nights.

The 800 Line is a relatively recent addition to AC Transit’s fleet, funded as part of Regional Measure 2 in 2004.  Prior to that, no overnight transbay bus existed, meaning night commuters truly lacked any means of crossing the bay short of getting someone to drive them over the bridge. The 800 is still in service for now, but as AC Transit is suffering an ongoing budget crisis, its administrators have repeatedly contemplated cutting as many as four of the agency’s six overnight routes.

Raburn said he supports extending BART’s hours, but he doesn’t think 24-hour service is realistic in the current economy.

In view of all the obstacles to a 24-hour schedule, Dickenson said he’s convinced that round-the-clock service may not be seriously discussed for generations. In the short term, he’s set his sights on a more modest goal: extending service until 3 or 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.

Meanwhile, BART’s late-night riders impatiently await a world recently described on Dickenson’s Facebook wall:  a world “where dreams come true, and people no longer sleep at the station til morning, or ride across the Bay Bridge in a trunk.”

Image: Moving around the Bay Area is more difficult after midnight, when BART stops running. Photo courtesy of kalavinka via Flickr.

You might also enjoy this Oakland North audio story: Why is BART so noisy?


  1. […] Read Ted Trautman’s previous article on the local push for 24-hour BART service, and more information on why extending BART hours is a difficult task for the transit agency. […]

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