SMART Train alcohol policy comes up short

SMART wants to limit alcohol on its trains to only what patrons buy at the concessionaire. Experience from Caltrain shows that allowing riders to BYOB policy is not just good policy, but helps embed the system further into the culture of riders. 

Caltrain riders hanging out. Image from SF2G.com

Caltrain riders hanging out. Image from SF2G.com

For 18 years I have ridden Caltrain - and in that time I have brought aboard and consumed hundreds of bottles and cans of beers, which I have enjoyed legally on the train. This includes frequent patronage of the semi-official Party Car formed by the cyclists on Caltrain.

Starting in 2000, alcohol consumption on Caltrain increased exponentially with the opening of AT&T park, home of the San Francisco Giants. Giants fans have flocked to the train, riding up the Peninsula with cases of beer and bottles of who knows what, safely being carried to and from the games. At some point, Caltrain decided to ban alcohol on trains running after 9 PM only IF there is an event - primarily Giants games but also Sharks games, concerts at AT&T Park, and now 49ers games and concerts at Levi's Stadium. That late, the consumption before and during the events reach enough of a pitch that it was prudent to put a limit on the policy. Over the years the train has also served hugely alcohol-fueled events like Bay to Breakers, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Octoberfests, etc... frequently on the same day.

Generally speaking, this open BYOB policy on Caltrain has been a success. Problems are generally very rare, given the nature of the train as primarily a commuter rail with a higher level fare. It has been an attraction to the train that has a nominal positive influence on overall ridership numbers.

At the end of 2016, I will start riding a new train line - the SMART train in Sonoma County. It will function as primarily commuter rail, running almost exclusively during peak commute hours, with a fare structure prohibitive to general miscreants, making it nominally similar to Caltrain, except that it will serve no special events like the Giants as there are no major sports or entertainment venues on the train line.

SMART has released their draft code of conduct for the train. It includes a policy of NO BYOB. They don't have a no alcohol policy because they have an operating theorem of having a bar car on the train. I am very disappointed by this policy - I find it rider hostile and that it will have a negative impact on the rider experience and overall ridership. While there will be a bar car - there are bar cars on the Amtrak Capitol Corridor too, but in a place like Sonoma County with an excellent selection of beer and wine, to limit riders to the meager selection of a bar car is misguided.

There is, of course, the suspicion that the rationale is not to prevent unruly behavior, but to support whatever vendor they get for their bar car. This is understandable, for the most part because the decision to put a bar car onto the trains is misguided at best. SMART put out a presentation on the bar car where they are toying with giving free rent to the vendor for a return of a percentage of the profits. This is predicated on the presumption that a bar car will turn a profit - my experience from the Amtrak Capitols is that the bar car is at best a loss leader, not a profit center. This is especially true when you consider that SMART has wasted valuable train space to build the bar car.

I personally think that the potential ridership of SMART should make it clear that the no BYOB policy is not in line with the overall goals of the train. They should reconsider this path and allow riders to bring their own beverages onto the train.

If you agree - please email SMART at info@sonomamarintrain.org.

Originally Published: Murphy, John. 2016. “SMART Train Alcohol Policy.” Holier than You Blog. May 18.