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Transit Stories: San Francisco Municipal Railway – Part 3.2

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San Francisco Muni’s Metro network provides adequate connections between Downtown and the outer suburbs of the City. However, when light rail vehicles break down, compounded with facts that the number of vehicles are usually in short supply compared to increasing passenger demand for train services, it seems like the increasing problems on the Metro need to be resolved, and fast.

Not only once that I’ve encountered a problem with Muni Metro, be it because of a broken down train somewhere along the Market Street subway or the Twin Peaks Tunnel, or it is because the train itself has its own set of problems that I informed the operator about such issues (discussed below). Although the trains themselves provide adequate air conditioning and heating units (some operators push the a/c unit way to the limit) that provide relief to the (sometimes) oppressive heat or chilly cool down in the City, it seems like problems plague the Muni Metro. For instance:

I was on my way home from San Francisco State when my inbound M-Ocean View train headed for Embarcadero stopped close to West Portal as usual (because the station was occupied by another train), but the lead train inside the station did not go through because of another incident inside the Twin Peaks tunnel. The reason: a faulty wiring that caused the train to stop between Forest Hill and Castro stations, forcing all trains to stop at the closest station.

I was on another inbound M train headed supposedly to the Embarcadero when all of a sudden, the train driver changed its destination sign for Castro station. It then made me worried because I expected the train to travel all the way to its downtown destination, but, a PA announcement said that there was another faulty wiring incident–at that time, it was close to the Church & Market tunnel portal and connection–that lost power to trains and forced the remaining trains to turnaround at the closest station, causing another wave of confusion and concern, not only for myself, but for other riders as well.

The result of those two incidents: I had to get out of the train, fearing that staying there could further delay my trip, then I headed out (or up) to street level where I got a connecting “Shuttle” bus (an articulated bus) or rode a F streetcar to head to my intended destination on Powell Street. Those incidents added extra, unnecessary time to my trip that nearly costed my time that I could walk around the area before I headed home to Marin.

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Other incidents were train-related, in which I informed the operator about what went wrong with his or her train before continuing on, and here are some stories that I’ve encountered before:

I was on board an outbound M train from San Francisco State heading towards Balboa Park when the operator said after leaving the university, “Steps are going down”. As usual, I heard the beep, warning riders to stay away from the movable floor that becomes passenger steps when activated. The passenger stairs are used for passenger entry and exit when the train operates through many city streets when no level (island or side) platforms are available. However, in that instance, I did not hear the “steamy” sound of the steps actually going down after hearing the initial warning sound for a minute or two, then I told the driver what I saw because the train cannot stop on street-side stops when the stairs are not activated. The train was then stuck at a right-of-way on 19th Avenue between Holloway Avenue and Junipero Serra Blvd when the operator started to check on the train and unlock the stair mechanism that allowed the steps to go down once again.

Another incident happened on board an L train when the train’s right hand doors on the second car did not open at all, making them feel “stuck” inside the train for several minutes. I have informed the operator through the intercom and told her that the doors on the rear train car did not open at all (it stopped at Castro station where the doors open to the right). Many passengers boarded the train on the front train instead, resulting in delays, not only for the train I was on, but for the trains running behind it. Another matter of inconvenience for both riders and the operator. When the doors were finally fixed, passengers disembarked from the train as usual, and the trip resumed normally.

Muni Metro has 151 Breda light rail vehicles made from Italy that are heavier, offer more passenger seats, and run fast inside tunnels, up to a top speed of 40 miles per hour. However, due to increased congestion on the network, as well as a high turnover for operators who work long days, accidents happen, albeit not as often as train breakdowns. The worst incident in recent memory was the West Portal train incident in 2009 when a two-car L train sped through a stopped K train on the outbound track at West Portal Station and crashed onto the K train’s rear, where it resulted in multiple injuries. Operator error–the driver suffered a “blackout” when the incident happened–and a fault on the automated train control system were the primary causes of the accident. However, Muni claimed that a long-term practice of operators to switch trains to manual mode before entering West Portal station has deemed to be “safe” because it allowed the trains to properly reach the platform dock with the proper speed after leaving the “automated” mode through the tunnel. Despite those claims, the National Transportation Safety Board found Muni liable for the incident that resulted to 48 injuries, and the total repair bill for the trains amounted to $4 million. (See the full story here) Another, less serious, collision happened in 2008 when a T-Third Street train collided with an N-Judah train in South Beach, wherein it resulted with a few passengers suffering minor injuries. (For the video, click here)


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Perhaps the most disturbing trend is that when passengers get rowdy over a surprise fare inspection or when a group of teenagers attack someone or some people on the train stations, it becomes a question of vigilance over violence and disorderly conduct. A deadly scene happened last week when a 19-year old man was caught by fare inspectors without a valid transfer ticket on board a T-Third Street train when he started running away from them and shot police officers along Third Street in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, resulting in his death and injuries to the responding officers. (For the video, click here) Another incident happened when a group of teenagers assaulted a passenger walking towards a Muni Metro platform on the T line, resulting in multiple injuries. (For the video, click here)

It is not my motive to attack Muni’s current policies of giving drivers the second-highest wage for any transit operator in California or showing the fact that Muni operates at near-capacity very often that needs a vast expansion of its fleet. It is, however, my responsibility to share with you, my viewers, that the issues surrounding Muni Metro is legitimate, concerning, and an understatement of the growing problems faced by transit operators face throughout the country. It is not surprising that transit drivers face a greater risk of assaults from other people compared to car drivers, struggle to keep up with increasing costs of fuel and maintenance, and scrambling to get funds from various government agencies to keep them running effectively. It is therefore of my great concern that public transportation issues, such as those faced by Muni Metro, should be addressed in a timely, swift manner because thousands of passengers, especially those of low-income and minority backgrounds, rely on its services to get around town and go between cities to go to work, school, or serve other people. I believe that with the passengers’ voice from those backgrounds, as well as continued pressure to use the transportation budget wisely and effectively, we can solve many of the issues Muni Metro and other transit agencies face, and with today’s vulnerable economy, I think that people need to start becoming creative and find ways to alleviate the growing pains of public transportation funding and support.


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