December 20, 2010

BART Delay: Transbay Tube

You may have heard about the Sunday BART delay due to minor smoke/fire in the transbay tube. Here's my story.

At about 1:53, I tagged my clipper card and was descending the stairs to the 16th and Mission platform when I heard the announcement: "Due to equipment problems, there is no service to the East Bay."

What?! Turned around and walked to the station attendant, who confirmed that there had been a fire in the Transbay Tube (this was later downgraded to smoke), and that he wasn't sure when service would be restored, and that I should get to Embarcadero to see about getting a bus.

Thankfully I had no time constraints on getting back to the East Bay, so it was all very adventurous, rather than a royally inconvenient pain in the ass.

Took the 14 bus to Embarcadero and went into the station hoping for guidance. This came in an unexpected package: I met a man and a woman in the process of giving the station attendant what could euphemistically be called a piece of their mind. They were just finishing their rant as I approached, and as they turned to leave the man spoke knowledgeably about AC Transit Bay Bridge bus service, so I fell in with them. And found out why they were hopping mad.

Both the man, who introduced himself to me as Richard, and the woman, whose name I never got, had passed the station attendant as they walked to the ticket machine to purchase the fare for their respective destinations. Then, just as they were about to put their tickets into the turnstile, the attendant says to them: "there is no service to the East Bay." Predictable customer reaction: "Well why didn't you tell me when I was putting money into the machine!!!" Not as predictable response: "Well you didn't ask." Predictable customer reaction: apoplectic (e.g., You are BART, I assume that there will be a train when I buy my ticket because that is the service in which your organization specializes, etc).

What's worse is that when the woman asked "well what do I do now?" the official response was "you should talk to the Muni guy." She walked over to the Muni guy who was like, "we only run buses in SF, and the Transbay Tube is all BART, so go talk to them." Totally true--getting BART riders to Oakland is certainly not Muni's job. Then the BART guy, who had time to brainstorm, recommended that she go to the Transbay Bus Terminal, though he could give neither precise directions nor the actual bus route she should take. Round 2 of apoplectic indignation ensued.

Thanks to Richard, we walked down to the temporary terminal (the planned upgrade looks muy excelente, btw), where the AC Transit driver insisted we pay our fare, despite futile protests. I helped Richard out with 3 $1 bills for the $4 fare as he had no cash, we boarded, made it to 19th Street, and we were back in the system.

My Beefs:

1) I double, or triple payed my transit fares today. I tagged my Clipper at 16th and Mission, and as I left I got a sticker on the card from the attendant so I wouldn't have to pay to get into the next station. I paid to get onto Muni. I paid $4 to get across the Bay Bridge. But when we arrived at 19th St, the attendant asked us all to tag out of the fare gates after we walked in through the emergency exit, otherwise the tickets would get all befuddled. I should have anticipated something like that, but wasn't thinking. So--I tagged in at 16th and Mission, left, paid Muni and AC Transit to take me to 19th Street Oakland, where I paid BART for being broken. Nice. I also paid BART for going from 19th to Walnut Creek.

(NB BART cards track your entrances and exits, such that if you enter a station with a paying ticket, but then leave the destination station without inserting your ticket into the turnstile, you cannot re-enter any BART station with said ticket unless you see the attendant. Which would mean either confessing, or enthusiastically defending an excuse, and dealing with the shame they heap on you. Been there.)

2) BART's utterly nonexistent contingency plan and bone-headed customer service. The Transbay Tube is the critical piece of the network--every train goes through it, it's underwater, and there are only two tracks. Track damage anywhere else may only snarl one line, and in many places there are more than two tracks. Not so in the concrete tube beneath the sea floor. Given the vulnerability of this segment, BART should have free shuttle buses ready to dispatch. Anything less is unacceptable. Seemingly having no plan is simply pathetic. One time in Boston, a green line MBTA trolley broke down in a snowstorm, and complimentary shuttle buses arrived 20 minutes later. As for customer service--maybe attendants were trained to assist customers in the event of service outages and this guy just slept through that session. Or maybe BART's official policy is like, "if we're broken, you gotta find another way. Sorry!" This would not surprise me.

Bottom line: BART should be thanking its lucky stars that this happened on a Sunday afternoon, and only lasted 45 minutes before they started single tracking trains through the tube. If the tube was shut down during a weekday commute, there is no way BART could handle the thousands of unexpectedly stranded irate customers. PR nightmare.

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