Tuesday, 7 August 2012


After an 18-hour train ride on the Coast Starlight from Portland, OR, I arrived in Richmond, CA with only a 30 minutes delay. Richmond station is conveniently located to transfer directly to BART into San Francisco, but not too many people seem to do this, at least not when I did it. The platforms lie side by side, but of course, you need to buy a ticket for BART (4.30 USD), whereas I think the Amtrak ticket to Richmond is about the same price as one to Emeryville, from where Amtrak provides buses across the Bay Bridge to several downtown destinations. But I wanted to get on an urban rail system as quick as possible and mix with the late morning commuter crowd...

San Francisco and the Bay Area is, of course, a rail enthusiast's paradise with so many different types of trains serving the region. I only stayed for four days (2-5 Aug 2012), however, as unlike the other places visited on this trip so far, I already came to S.F. on my 2008 tour. So, as nothing much has changed since then, this visit was more of a leisure stopover with less extensive train riding than elsewhere. I did, however, take another close look at BART and the Muni Metro, but my comments will be more a list of impressions of various types:


- although showing some signs of age, it is still one of the most efficient rail systems in the U.S., especially when it comes to capacity and travel speed.

- it has sufficient printed materials available at all stations: maps, schedules, how-to-ride guides, bus connections with good maps, so in this respect it is probably the best U.S. system.
- the visual displays in stations could be modernised, now there are only led-indicators showing all sorts of messages, next minutes to different trains (including number of cars, useful to encourage people to use the entire platform or move to the centre in time) and finally the next train approaching. Parallel to this, the minutes left for the next trains are almost continuously announced acoustically, which I find sometimes a bit annoying, but it is helpful.
- information onboard the trains, however, is not so good: there are no visual next-station indicators, and the stations are announced 'live' by the driver, resulting in often difficult to understand messages (again, this sort of message is not required for the regular commuter, but for the occasional rider, so it should be clearer and thus preferably pre-recorded).
- chances are high, however, that pre-recorded messages will not be understood either, because some of the trains are really loud, they seem to be badly insulated and you can hear clearly as the wheels negotiate their way across the switches. Hopefully the new trains on order from Bombardier will show some significant improvements in this respect.
- for me personally, as a tall person with back problems, the seats on BART trains are simply horrible. They are much too low and too soft (or sat through after many years of carrying overweight passengers...). I spotted a view cars showing a “new seats inside” batch on the outside and was hoping that this would be good news for me, but the new seats only have plastic instead of the former textile upholstering to allow easier cleaning, but they didn't do anything about the soft cushion. So again, let's hope the new trains will have better seating (I know, what is good for some is not so comfortable for others).

- a good thing to point out is that trains are scheduled to provide cross-platform interchange at MacArthur (southbound) and 19th Street/Oakland (northbound) and that this is indicated as such on system maps! This is especially useful at times when there are no direct trains from Richmond to San Francisco.
- The alignment of BART routes is generally very good, allowing high speeds. There is, however, one location where you think that this is the NYC Subway, that's the triangular junction in Oakland, and although different directions are on different levels (southbound on the lower), trains crawl over many switches in these extremely tight curves, with the accompanying noise described above. Apparently some property owner did not want to give up his site when BART was built, so millions of passengers have to suffer for 200 years because of one stubborn neighbour!
- as many sections are above ground, the train windows are darkened to keep out the sun, but as a result of this, the underground stations appear very dark from the train, and signs such as station names are hard to distinguish. At Powell station, they have already installed new signage, with illuminated signs, so at least the station name is easily readable through the train window.

- The four busy stations in downtown San Francisco, which are located below the respective Muni Metro stations, have a rather low ceiling and rather inconspicuous designs. I therefore prefer the underground stations in Oakland and Berkeley, or the vaulted mezzanines at 16th/Mission and 24th/Mission. To change from BART to Muni Metro, there are no direct escalators or stairs between the two levels, instead you need to get up to the mezzanine, get out of the zone-based BART fare system and then pass through the “Metro” fare gates to descend one level to Muni Metro's trains. On some escalators from the BART level to the mezzanine you can enjoy a view of the Muni platform.
- I don't like the operation of the southern section towards SFO Airport and Millbrae. It is rather confusing and a very bad service for Caltrain passengers. If you live along the southern part of the Peninsula along the busy Caltrain route, and you want to get to the Airport, you can change from Caltrain to BART at Millbrae, but on weekdays, you have to go to San Bruno and then take a train in the opposite direction to reach the airport. If you fly on weekends or weekday evenings, you're lucky and have a direct train from Millbrae.
- even 40 years later it is still difficult to understand why the Caltrain route wasn't converted and fully integrated into BART anyway. But with the new high-speed route sharing an upgraded Caltrain route, this will never happen.


Of all light rail systems I have seen, Muni Metro features the starkest contrasts:
- if it wasn't for the short trains (one or two cars only), Muni Metro looks like a metro in the subway portions, and even the stations appear to be proper metro stations, with platforms some 100 m long (where the short trains appear a bit lost like on some German Stadtbahn or underground tram systems!). Unlike Boston's Green Line, trains operate swiftly through the subway, although only one train is permitted inside a station at one time, I think.

- except for the relatively new Third Street line to Sunnydale, which has high-floor platforms throughout and a reserved right-of-way, the surface sections are of the most pathetic streetcar alignments one can imagine. The locations where people get off and on do not even deserve to be called 'stops', as only exceptionally one would easily identify them as such. Many are simply signed by an area of yellow paint on a lamppost or traffic light pole on the side of the street, probably with the words “car stop” and the line letter on it. You can find them at almost all road intersections. There may also be a stop ID, so you can call and ask for departure times or use your modern phone app. A few stops have some sort of platform, and a few have a short high-level boarding platforms for wheelchair users. Unlike in other cities I have been to, I didn't see these platforms being used, probably because many areas served by Muni Metro are too hilly for wheelchair users anyway. In some places, these mini-high platforms are located somewhere between stops. On the western surface branches, there are only two proper light rail stops/stations, Stonestown and SF State University, with a full-length roofed high platform and with a segregated route between them, too. 

Otherwise, most sections are on street, which wouldn't be that bad, if it wasn't for the countless STOP signs which force trains to come to a complete halt even without a boarding stop. I think that if you want to provide serious public transport, you need to give these roads priority over crossing streets! I suppose they place all these “STOP All Ways” signs to avoid that cars speed through residential areas, but at the same time they slow down trains. STOP signs also contribute a lot to emissions as cars and buses continuously brake and start accelerating again, and that's when they throw out most exhaust fumes! And for train passengers, this stop-and-go ride is simply unpleasant, I guess for the driver, too.
- also for the safety of passengers, an upgrade of the surface routes is urgently needed. Street-boarding should be forbidden worldwide by international laws! Several stops can probably be eliminated.

- unlike many other transit agencies, Muni doesn't seem to hand out schedules for individual lines, nor trains nor buses, at least I didn't see any. I guess there is a timetable, but trains appear rather at random, typically none for a long time and then several in a row. Interestingly, in the underground stations, there are real-time displays where you can see where the next trains with their line letter are currently located. As on BART, the next trains are also announced acoustically in the subway, but along the surface sections, you just hope that a train will be coming, only a few stops are equipped with next-train indicators. I could not see a criterion for the choice of stops, theoretically the busiest stops, but Balboa Park with three lines starting there did not have one, at least not in the area I hardly identified as the boarding spot!

- while BART makes all sorts of printed info available, Muni has non at all. This may be a result of changing competences or simply negligence. In the downtown area, there a many maps on street level and even new fancy bus stops with maps and next-bus indicators, but those maps seem to be produced by the Metropolitan Transit Commission, the 511.org, and includes all transport modes, which is very good. Even the “temporary” Transbay Terminal is equipped with all sorts of displays and maps, much nicer than most bus stations in Europe. But once you get beyond the downtown area to areas less frequented by tourists, information levels decrease to zero. But even in the city centre, things sometimes get rather pathetic. Yesterday I wanted to get off the bus (the stops are even announced both visually and acoustically!), I pressed the button as soon as I heard the name, but the driver didn't stop. I walked to the front and he let me off at the next corner. I walked back to check where the stop actually was, but was pretty surprised that the only sign of a bus stop was a yellow bar painted on the road surface and the curbside and the numbers of the stopping bus lines painted on the sidewalk! No further comment, just embarrassing and pathetic! How much does it cost to erect a stop pole with basic information? I start wondering whether I am too demanding?
Muni doesn't distribute a bus map, instead they refer you to the Tourist Office, which has a free and good map including transportation!


The only properly signed Muni line is the Market Street – Embarcadero heritage streetcar line F. It has proper platforms at all stops, even with elevated sections (I never saw anybody use them). But also with the F-Line you need to be patient. I'm not sure it does have a schedule, in any case, trams come rather irregularly and the crowds of tourists don't help to make it faster. On some sections, trolleybuses share the lane used by the streetcars, but they are often held while streetcar passengers are boarding. 

By the way, Muni has just introduced boarding through all doors on buses and streetcars to speed up the procedure, but many people still pay cash and have to get in through the front door. I didn't see any ticket inspections, which would be the result of this open system. Underground stations, however, are equipped with fare gates, but with passes (like the Muni Passport for tourists) one has to walk through an automatically opening door (I guess there must be a bit of abuse with this!).

And the bus fleet is rather old, both diesel and electric trolleybuses. I did not see any low-floor buses (and this is 2012!), while AC-Transit, which serves the East Bay cities like Berkeley and Oakland boasts an almost completely renewed bus fleet.


Although some people use the cable cars to climb up the hills to their homes, I wouldn't include them in a public transport review, I consider them rather a tourist attraction. It's fun to ride them, but I always feel pity for the regular passengers who hardly get on board amongst all these tourists.


The different modes in the SF area are not integrated when it comes to fares. BART operates a distance-based fare system, ranging from 1.75 to 11.05 dollars for a trip from Pittsburgh to SFO Airport. Ticket machines are not too intuitive. Basically you need to introduce as much money as you want and the fare is then deducted at the end of your trip. Later you can add more money to the same ticket, but it kept mine when it went down to zero. If you just want to ride the train and not get out of the stations, you can do that for a 1.75 fare, and BART even offers such excursion ticket for 5 USD when you get out at the same station.
On Muni a single ride costs 2.00. For tourists, a special Muni Passport is available at the Tourist Office at Powell station. It costs 14 USD for one day, but only 21 for three days, and just 27 for 7 days! This pass is also good for the cable cars which otherwise cost 6 USD for one ride (if you manage to get on during this busy tourist season!).
If you stay longer and want to ride anything around the Bay Area, get the new Clipper smartcard, which is increasingly being implemented on all modes, including ferries, and just deducts the required fare from the value you added. But as of now, it was not available from (old) ticket machines, so you need to find a location where it is sold. It doesn't save you money, but at least you don't have to worry about different fares and exact change etc.


San Francisco rail transit at UrbanRail.Net



  1. Robert, I completely agree that BART seats are terrible, and precisely for the two reasons you described: too low and too soft. This is also a problem with some Amtrak cars, notable Horizons. Ergonomists recommend the height of 55 cm of the cusion above the floor level. Airline seats are about as high. BART and some Amtrak seats are way too low (and yes, too soft as well).

    1. I loved the soft seats the couple times I have taken BART - now I live in NYC and the hard seats are a bit of a pain on longer trips. But to each his own.

  2. A couple of notes: Muni does have timetables, but not printed ones. You can find them online, or in the transit information on Google Maps. As far as the bus fleet goes, they do have relatively new low-floor buses, but not articulated ones, so they're mostly used on more peripheral and less busy routes. The trolleybus fleet is relatively new, aside from a some of the artics, which are old-looking. Also, in the subway, even though multiple trains can physically fit in the rather long platforms, and the signal system lets them get pretty close together so this can happen in practice, the trains are all under automatic control in the tunnel, and the computer considers the station to be a point, so only one train can have its doors open at a time.

  3. Agree with you on BART seats. But as per my opinion this is public transport service so there will be such kind of problems.

    1. Well, with this sort of resignating attitude things will never improve. You need to be more critical and demanding!

  4. The California Street Cable car is still used by locals, as it doesn't go where most tourist want to go. When I was younger I worked near fisherman's wharf and would ride the Powell Street cable car every day in the early morning, but I'd take a bus back to Market Street in the evening, unless the weather was bad (and the tourist weren't around). I would guess that a lot of locals still use the line in the early morning.
    As Anonymous mentioned, Muni does have low floor buses, but they are the smaller sized buses used in the outer neighborhoods.

    1. I rode the cable car as a tourist. The line at the beginning of the route was amazing. I walked up exactly one block and skipped the line. I'd say the ride was pleasant, but it wasn't. It was crowded. I can see what you mean though—at the right hour it would be quite useful for local transport.

  5. Your comments remind me of the year I lived in SF - almost 20 years ago - when everyone was making the exact same criticisms about the bus bunching, the overcrowding, and the overall shoddiness of the whole system. And it sounds like little has changed. What a shame.

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  7. Nice review. As a commuter who rides BART to work every day, I thought your comments were on the mark. Despite some visible aging of the system, it really works very well.

    By way of explanation, the reason BART has never run down the SF peninsula is because each county had to approve its membership in BART, and the Board of Supervisors in San Mateo County (through which Caltrain runs) voted the county out of BART in 1961, a classic example of short-sighted NIMBYism.

    The SF Muni Metro has always suffered from mismanagement, and the problems you identify are symptomatic. The older sections (the lines running in residential outer areas of San Francisco) have never been upgraded to modern standards, hence the many stops in the middle of the street with no signs, platforms, or facilities. For many years every mayor has promised in their election campaign to "fix Muni," but it's no longer even mentioned. It seems we've all given up on any hope of the system ever working well. Although Muni is closer to where I live, I take BART. It's much faster, much more reliable, and more comfortable as well.

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