Train strain: BART working on capacity issues as ridership rises to record levels


Train strain: BART working on capacity issues as ridership rises to record levels

It’s not your imagination. BART trains are still getting more crowded, especially in the peak commute hours. In 2012 BART carried more than 114 million riders, surpassing all records.  BART also set an all-time single-day record of 568,061 as the Bay Area celebrated the 2012 Giants World Series victory.

The good news: It’s an indication the economy is rebounding; more people have jobs to go to; they’re choosing BART and reporting high customer satisfaction with important attributes such as on-time performance. The down side: Crowded cars are less comfortable for riders.

Cover of report on capacity, showing crowded platform

Cover page of Capacity Planning presentation


BART is stretching train car utilization to the max, putting every possible car in service that can be used without jeopardizing safety or reliability. We’re also working over the long range to completely replace the fleet and expand capacity (see for more info). At a Board of Directors workshop Jan. 11-12, 2013, the Board heard presentations on the new rail vehicle program and on capacity planning issues. Download the new rail vehicle presentation and the capacity planning presentation for more details, or play an archived video of the workshop for the discussion.

“Our cars continue to age and require intensive maintenance to maintain reliability,” Jay Bolcik, manager of schedules and service planning, said. BART has one of the oldest fleets in the nation. Meanwhile, “We are on track for yet another ridership record in 2013,” Bolcik said.


Riders can do their part to maximize space by following the guidelines for courtesy and safety, such as moving to the center of the car to make room for riders getting on, not holding the train doors open, following rules for bicycles and preparing to exit as the train nears your destination. With more crowded trains, a little patience goes a long way.

In 2012 BART saw weekdays with ridership of 400,000-plus – edging up past figures from 2008, the system’s highest sustained ridership levels for regular days, without special events.  While overall numbers are one thing, looking at commute hours is even more telling – after all, about 57 percent of all BART ridership happens in the peak (defined as 7 am – 10 am and 4 pm to 7 pm). Every month in calendar year 2012 the combined AM/PM peak ridership has exceeded previous monthly records.


Even more interesting is the “peak of the peak” – numbers obtained from internal modeling, showing riders traveling to the most congested stops in the San Francisco Financial District. Those numbers are trending even higher than the record seen in 2008 – about 49,000 every morning, compared with about 46,000 in 2008.

“Those peak hour trains are the most crowded,” Bolcik said. “We still have capacity, but we are running the maximum number of trains and cars at those times.” Because many of those riders are going to fixed work schedules, they have little flexibility to change their commute patterns.

BART is now serving 44 stations without any increase in the total fleet size, although some trains were lengthened on the Dublin line to serve the new customers using the West Dublin/Pleasanton station that opened in 2011. BART typically has 573 of its 669 train cars available at the peak commute, representing over 85 percent of the BART fleet – one of the highest utilization rates of any major transit agency.  (The rest of the cars are undergoing scheduled maintenance or component upgrades.) “We don’t let a car operate unless we have complete confidence in its safety and reliability,” Bolcik said.


Pressing train cars into service that are not road-ready would only lead to more delays. It’s akin to running your personal car without ever changing the oil – the longer you wait, the more damage you do, the greater chance of a major failure, and an even longer wait time when it eventually gets fixed.

Scheduling managers are constantly analyzing data from the passenger loads on BART trains, working to make any adjustments that are needed so that the right size trains can be assigned. In some cases even when more train cars would be optimal, there just aren’t enough to go around.  That’s why you can’t guarantee that even if your regular route typically has a 10-car train, there won’t be a day when it has to be nine cars or even shorter, depending on availability. Train car lengths are available in the real-time departures section of or on your mobile device at, in addition to scrolling on the electronic signs above the platform.

As another way to help with capacity on the existing cars, until the new fleet arrives later this decade, BART is modifiying the seat configuration on trains to increase the space for standing riders, luggage, bikes and strollers, with plans to have all train cars modified by July 2013.  

This is an updated version of a story that was originally published in May 2011.