In an article from a couple days ago, the Chronicle combines various anecdotes from late-night party people, workers, and station agents, all showing a generally high level of enthusiasm for the 24-hour service BART ran while the Bay Bridge was shut down this past weekend — enthusiasm supported by the fact that BART achieved all-time ridership highs over the weekend. One fellow even remarked, “They should shut the Bay Bridge down a little more often.” This is a great idea for many reasons, not just for the late night party trains. Yet, except for a few remarkable cases throughout the years — including recently, when other seismic updates were made to the bridge, but also in the period in which the bridge was damaged immediately following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake — BART service completely shuts down in the middle of the night, even on the weekends, when the presence of continuous (or at least extended) train service could do substantial good in cutting down on drunk driving.
The primary reason why across-the-board late night BART service is an impossibility is the predominance of single track (in each direction) throughout the system. BART uses downtime in the middle of the night to perform regular maintenance, and there is simply no additional track on which late night trains could run.
Whether BART could run very limited nighttime service — for example, a few hourly trains until 3:00 am on Saturday and Sunday mornings only, to accommodate late-night revelers — I couldn’t say for sure. Presumably, BART has closely studied such an option, if only in response to a petition that circulated a few years back. The extra late night trains that BART ran over this past Labor Day weekend in connection with the Bay Bridge closures were far from a moneymaker, but the apparent popularity of these trains at least suggests that BART could also be underestimating the extent to which riders — not only clubbers and barhoppers, but also graveyard shift workers — would take advantage of such a service, especially once they knew it was a permanent change they could rely on. Although the AC Transit Route 800 bus (combined with a few other All-Nighter routes) provides all-nighter service to stops on the BART lines (hourly on weekdays, and every 30 minutes on weekends), there’s no doubt that late night BART service — even just a few hourly trains departing from terminal stations at 1:00 am, 2:00 am, and 3:00 am — would tap into an additional market of riders who will simply refuse to ride the Route 800 bus, whether for reasons of safety or comfort.
Another interesting twist to this story is that the WMATA — the agency that operates the Washington D.C. Metrorail, a system which parallels BART in many respects — currently runs trains until 3:00 am on weekends but is studying the possible elimination of this late-night service and replacing train service with owl bus service. This fact has undoubtedly not escaped the attention of BART officials.
In any case, one point is clear: BART needs to make track expansion a priority in its future infrastructure upgrades. It is far more important that BART realize this goal than build its proposed extensions into Warm Springs and beyond — and the importance goes beyond providing late night service, as fantastic as that would be. The lack of passing track means that if a problem occurs at particularly sensitive points (such as the Transbay Tube, through which run 4 of BART’s 5 routes), the effect ripples throughout the system and effectively shuts down a great deal of the system until the problem is resolved. This situation is bearable in terms of day-to-day operations, but becomes unacceptable if a problem arises. Passing track would allow rerouting of trains past any problem points, thus minimizing delays and inconvenience to riders.
Additional track would also be helpful in terms of introducing a concept which Caltrain has thoroughly embraced but which is currently foreign to BART: express trains. The lack of express track means that every train has to stop at every station along its route, and high traffic stations are given the same amount of service as lightly used stations. Extra track would give the flexibility to run express trains, some of which could help to increase ridership in very specific markets, such as:
- Commuter express trains designed to reduce travel times to and from outer ring stations;
- Express trains for special weekend events like Cal football games, or high profile parades and festivals; and
- Airport express trains that turn around at the SFO international terminal station, or trains that run express to Oakland’s Coliseum/Airport station.
Since 2004, when Caltrain first introduced its rush hour “Baby Bullet” express trains (which only make about a half dozen stops between San Francisco and San Jose Diridon), weekday Caltrain ridership has increased 32%. It is certainly reasonable to think that express trains with similarly substantial time savings over local trains would increase BART’s ridership, as well. For now, I am not holding out hope for even limited late night BART service, although I would of course be thrilled to have it. Nonetheless, the enthusiasm that Bay Area residents demonstrated for the additional trains that were run this past weekend shows that BART needs to think both carefully and creatively about how it expands and improves service in the future. New infrastructure will be needed, and express track, which really ought to have been built as part of the original system, should be right at the top of the list.