Historic Muni streetcar shortage highlights driver training woes

There’s a curious shortage of historic trains on San Francisco’s streets.

A year after the launch of the E-Embarcadero streetcar line to complement the F-Market & Wharves streetcar line, many of the E- and F-line trains — to the dismay of business owners whose livelihoods depend on tourists lured by the iconic vehicles — have been replaced by buses.

The F-line is of particular worry to merchants, as it ferries spend-heavy tourists from Fisherman’s Wharf, up to Market and to the Castro neighborhood.

Perhaps more impactful to city residents, the streetcar shortage may be a symptom of a larger shortage in trained Muni operators.

It all boils down to one problem, transit officials said: There simply aren’t enough drivers.

Businesses impacted

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency confirmed to the San Francisco Examiner there is a lack of historic streetcar operators. It’s a problem they’re aware of and are actively working to fix, said John Haley, SFMTA director of transit.

“We’ve got some catching up to do on the F-line,” Haley said.

That’s a problem for the businesses in the Castro and Fisherman’s Wharf, which depend on the 23,000 daily riders for customers and transit-dependent workers.

“Boy, when that F-Line is down, it decreases the amount of tourists who want to go from Fisherman’s Wharf to here,” said Daniel Bergerac, head of the Castro Merchants group, which represents more than 300 neighborhood merchants.

Streetcars were also down during the Super Bowl City, and buses ran on the F-line — which Bergerac said didn’t help. Merchants in the Castro saw business drop 20 to 30 percent over previous years for the same time, he said.

Troy Campbell, executive director of the Fisherman’s Wharf Community Benefits District, said he sees similar impacts to businesses at the Wharf when streetcars don’t run, especially on the transit-dependent west end.

Buses are simply less attractive to tourists than the historic streetcars, said Rick Laubscher, head of the Market Street Railway nonprofit.

“All you have to do is go down to the Ferry Building and watch a bus go by half empty,” Laubscher said.

Driver shortage explained

The streetcar shortage is due to a combination of factors, the SFMTA said, but it all starts with “general sign-ups.” That’s a contractually granted time when Muni operators can decide which bus or train yard — called divisions — from which they’d like to work.

Usually around 20 operators leave Green Division, where the historic streetcars are housed, according to SFMTA — but this year 72 operators fled Green.

Additionally, the mass operator exodus hit right as Muni began a planned service increase on light-rail routes citywide under its Muni Forward program.

That 10 percent service increase citywide means more service for Muni’s 700,000 riders, a historic transit boost.

But operators needed to fill the increase on light-rail lines are often “dual trained,” Haley said, on both streetcars and light-rail.

So drivers were taken off the streetcar routes, like the F, to operate lines like the N-Judah.

Haley said a new graduating class of streetcar operators may solve the streetcar shortage. Paul Rose, an SFMTA spokesperson, said four F-line operators graduated this month, and four or five are expected to graduate in late October.

In November, 12 to 15 light-rail vehicle operators are expected to graduate, he said.

Still, Haley acknowledged, “We as an agency need to do a better job of syncing service increases with training throughput.”

Training called into question

Eric Williams, head of the Transport Worker Union Local 250-A, the Muni operators’ union, said he’s not confident the problem will be solved anytime soon.

Muni has a high burden of people to be trained for streetcars right now, he said, made worse by a high washout rate in operator training.

Green Division, which runs light rail vehicles like the J, K, L, M, N, T and also streetcars is seeing as many as “23 open runs a day,” he said. An “open run” is a scheduled vehicle that doesn’t leave the yard.

The SFMTA said their missed runs decreased sharply after a spate of new hirings. In 2014 there were 504 weekly missed runs, which dropped to 49 weekly missed runs in 2015.

Williams still wasn’t optimistic. “They don’t have enough bodies to do all the work that’s supposed to be done,” he said.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez
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