Riding BART at 4 a.m. 

One recent weekend of all-night trains gave revelers a taste of something that may never be permanent.

East Bay locals who fancy the wee hours got the chance to see something truly rare on the weekend of October 15: all-night BART. Sure, the trains ran only hourly, and only on three of the system's five lines, and even then stopped at only about half the stations. But that was enough for the stalwart individuals who trickled onto the cars to take advantage of this mass-transit anomaly, Caltrans' compensation for closing the eastbound Bay Bridge those two weekend mornings. BART was simply the lesser of evils for some riders, such as late-night SF workers who preferred a limited train ride to a circuitous alternate drive over some far-flung bridge. But others took the extended hours as a gift from BART, and set out to do something they almost never can, legally at least: close the bars of the West Bay.

The 2:14 a.m. Pittsburg/Bay Point train pulled out of SF's 24th Street Station teeming with East Bay revelers, earlobes stretched, '80s jackets frayed, eyes full of freedom and Fernet-Branca. "It's a reverse boycott," opined Aneesa Davenport, one of the mostly young, mostly white folks jamming the platform. Davenport was riding the train just because she could. Her car started out with forty-plus riders, and at Powell Street, where two BART cops patrolled the platform, nearly twenty more bodies were added to the mix, creating a tipsy flip on the rush-hour scene. As the train departed Montgomery, Nate Daly, drummer for East Bay band Giant Haystacks, careened through the car from the opposite direction, trying to get the crowd riled up. "Are you guys totally psyched that BART's running 24 hours this weekend?!" he bellowed, to a limited response -- despite the train's merry mood, the hipster demographic has a built-in indifference. "You should write an e-mail tomorrow!"

Daly took his cause to the next car. By the time he finally ran out of steam, he'd gone through four or five. "Most of the time I was just getting blank looks," he said later. "A couple of people were like, 'Who do we write?' And that kind of stopped me dead, because I was like, 'I have no idea. Write somebody. Call the mayor.'"

You could call your mayor. You could write to BART, or to Caltrans, which fronted $200,000 to run the trains twelve extra hours that weekend. But you'd probably get the same response as a late-night BART petition that made the rounds in 2003. The transit district's party line is that it can't run trains in both directions and still perform maintenance. To stay on schedule, spokesman Linton Johnson says, BART must be closed a certain number of hours per week. "We would never be able to maintain our trains to the point where we could keep our 95 percent on-time record," he says. "It would just go through the toilet. BART would be completely unreliable. It would be a joke."

Money is BART's other issue -- running that handful of indecent-hour trains that weekend cost 200 Gs, but the system took in only $25,300 in fares. This makes sense to Conan "Neutron"Newton, the musician who spearheaded the 2003 petition. "I've heard from people that the real reason is less to do with maintenance," he says, "and more because they don't want to pay the extra money they would have to pay for the workers." But if Chicago and New York can do it, he adds, why can't we?

New York has quadruple tracks on many of its lines, so most MTA subways can divert trains onto express or local tracks to do maintenance. But the Washington, DC, Metro trains run on a single-track system. In fact, BART and Metro are remarkably similar: Each has five lines; their track mileage is nearly identical; and the two systems, unlike most, get the majority of their operating funds -- around 60 percent -- from fares. That's why BART can't afford to lose any fare revenues, Johnson says. "People expect BART to be on time," he notes. "When it's not on time, they go berserk."

The DC Metro, by the way, also has an impressive on-time rate -- 97-plus percent, according to spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein. Oh, and one other thing: It runs till 3 a.m. on weekends. When maintenance is needed during active travel hours, officials shut down one track and trains alternate in opposite directions on the other, as on a two-lane road under construction. There are occasional delays, usually in the ten-to-thirty-minute range. Every Thursday, the Metro puts out service alerts for the coming week, and that information is also posted on its Web site -- as of this writing, no maintenance or delays are expected.

BART's recent financial anguish means it is hardly interested in looking for extra change to appease East Bay barflies. This past May, the transit agency eliminated more than a hundred jobs, instituted new parking charges, added a ticket surcharge, reduced discounts, and shortened some rush-hour trains. But public transit is never profitable. When asked whether DC Metro's late-night train service has proved financially tolerable, its spokeswoman doesn't hesitate. It's hard to gauge its popularity over time, Farbstein says, since late-night service was phased in gradually, but those hours are certainly the least active on the DC rails. So why do it? "Because the board likes us to," she says.

Back in the wee hours of October 15, the Pittsburg/Bay Point train emerged from the Transbay Tube. "Let's go Oak-land!" two passengers cheered, as people took cell-phone pictures of a couple sleeping the sleep of the inebriated a few rows away. The train slowed at West Oakland but did not stop, and the weary conductor got on the intercom: "Like I said, MacArthur is the next stop. Please listen. Listen." At MacArthur -- the only Oakland stop on this line tonight -- passengers moved slowly through the station, lingering at the turnstiles to finish conversations. In the parking lot, where people continued to loiter, passenger Clark Mosher raised his fist and said, "This is civil! This is what life should be!"

"It was a great thing," added Daly, the drummer who'd tried to rile up fellow riders, before walking toward the street. "It just made it feel like we were in a real city."

Back in 1993, BART tried what it called "owl service" between April and July, running trains for two extra hours on the weekends. They ran every twenty minutes, stopping at Powell, Embarcadero, MacArthur, and Orinda. Spokesman Johnson says BART had hoped to get 3,136 extra passengers per weekend, but they got only 200, so that was that.

Yet the 1993 experiment was pretty limited -- although the trains ran more frequently, they stopped at just four stations, hardly sufficient to dent drunk-driving mishaps, which peak between midnight and 4 a.m. In 1993, furthermore, $3 gas would have sounded like a joke. And though BART got only 2,900 riders during the expanded hours on October 15, late-night ridership jumped to 6,300 the following day, probably due to word of mouth.

If fans of late-night BART want to get the attention of the system's bean counters, they'll get the chance next March and then in October, when the Bay Bridge will again be closed for repairs; Caltrans spokesman Jeff Weiss says his agency will consider sponsoring service expansions whenever the bridge has to be closed.

Certainly West Bay bars, clubs, and restaurants could profit from a few extra hours -- say, 1 to 3 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, limited service -- of East Bay patronage. SF taxi drivers, meanwhile, were shuttling passengers to BART stations all morning long, and a trio of such could be found, sans cabs, waiting for the Sunday 5:22 a.m. train out of Montgomery. Their personal carpool had broken down as they attempted to navigate the 101-to-580-to-880 route home.

Also waiting was a young man who'd just gotten off work at a bar in the TenderNob. The Treasure Island resident was forced to BART to MacArthur and board one of the buses waiting to ferry people there. The young man complained that the bridge closures were particularly bad on working people who just want to go home after a long day. But there was something else about his night, something BART bigwigs might be interested in.

He'd never taken BART before.


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