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Light Rail at Night

Is it safe for individuals to ride the light rail alone at night? In a word, no.

I ride the light rail on a regular basis, and have had considerable time to evaluate both the strengths and weaknesses of the system as a whole. The major problems are a lack of security, a lack of reliability, and a lack of destinations.

The system suffers from a lack of sufficient/effective security on trains and especially in stations. There are no security guards at most station stops, though the busy stations such as 16th street typically do have 1-3 guards during peak hours.

The trains are equally destitute of security/authority; I have never seen a train with more than one security guard, and most trains have none. Since the train cars don’t connect to each other, the security guards will switch cars at the stops, but this means that even trains with security guards have unmanned cars.

The result of this situation is that basic rules like no food or drink are never enforced. Individuals frequently use the trains to transport drugs, and it’s not uncommon to be in a car that reeks of marijuana. Individuals can also drink alcohol, engage in verbal and physical fights or harass other passengers without consequence.

There is also a more intrinsic security problem: The light rail system does not require a ticket or proof of payment to enter. Systems like Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) or the New York subways require you to have a card to enter the stations and board the trains, ensuring that almost everyone in the system paid the required fare.

The Sacramento Regional Transit (RT) uses an honor-based system. Riders buy a ticket, which is occasionally checked by an attendant. The ticket checkers are very rare. I see one maybe once out of every four or five times I ride.

Ticket checkers themselves are fairly slow, and individuals riding without a ticket can easily move to the far end of a train car and exit the train before the ticket checker reaches them. I’ve seen it more times than I can count — a ticket checker boards the train and the loudest, smelliest or sketchiest dudes quickly get off at the next stop. If someone is caught without a ticket, the fine is relatively small — the initial fine is as low as $85.00

Even if an individual is repeatedly caught evading fares or causing trouble, RT also has no legal right to ban people from the trains. The result is that the light rail system is perennially crowded with transients, exacerbating the problems with anti-social behavior, harassment, body odor, and more.

The system also suffers from a lack of basic reliability, both in terms of late trains and the occasional system-wide mechanical failure. The trains don’t adhere to the posted schedule, and while the variance is usually only a few minutes, sometimes an entire train run can disappear.

For example, during commuting hours there should be a train every 15 minutes but sometimes it can be as long as 30 minutes before a train actually arrives. There is no way to let passengers know when the next train will arrive, so it is always a bit of a mystery when the train will leave the station and when you will arrive at your destination.

Finally, there is a limit in where the light rail can take you. The system is primarily designed to take people to and from downtown Sacramento, and works fine for those purposes. Anything beyond this basic route will require one or more transfers, and oftentimes will significantly lengthen the time of your trip. If you have to take a bus, a trip that would take only 15 minutes by car could take 1.5 to 2 hours via RT.

A good example is traveling from my neighborhood to the Arden Fair mall. By car, it’s an easy trip — just take the 50 to the 80, and exit off of Arden Way. By transit, on the other hand, it requires two trains and a bus for a total trip time of at least an hour and 15 minutes.

Because of the lack of security at the stations and in the cars, and the lack of reliability in general, I wouldn’t recommend anyone ride light rail alone at night.

If you’re interested in reading more about safety and public transportation, here are some great articles to check out:

Women only busses in Mexico:
The importance of "Attractive Young Female Transit Riders":

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