In one case, a Muni operator was sleeping while his light-rail vehicle was on automatic through the Market Street subway. In another, an operator left a vehicle to buy a snack from a store. And on another day, five out of 13 vehicles observed passing through a school zone were speeding.
These instances were among dozens of safety violations outlined in the inspection reports released last week by the California Public Utilities Commission, the regulatory agency that oversees rail and light-rail transit agencies in the state.
On Thursday, the CPUC announced it is formally investigating San Francisco’s Muni light-rail system for pervasive safety problems and could fine the agency as much as $20,000 a day per violation, depending on the outcome of the case.
The CPUC is investigating Muni because its said the transit agency failed to respond quickly enough to safety concerns. After making the announcement, regulators released close to 300 pages of inspection reports created during the past three years, outlining every violation they have uncovered. Many cases have been “closed,” meaning Muni responded to the CPUC’s satisfaction, but they still provide insight into the safety concerns.
Many of the violations discovered by CPUC inspectors involve worn tracks, exposed wires, malfunctioning emergency phones and overgrown vegetation along the tracks, while a handful involve apparent human error.
On April 26, a state inspector observed an operator whose train was on automatic “closing his eyes while the train was moving.”
“The operator appeared to be asleep,” the inspection report said. “The operator had his right leg extended up on the trash can and his left arm was leaning on the left side of the control console. The operators head was resting in his left hand, while his eyes where closed and his mouth was open [sic].”
The inspector then identified himself to the operator and asked the operator if he was sleeping.
“It took a few seconds for the operator to respond, he replied ‘no I am not sleeping,’” according to the document. In an inspection conducted New Year’s Eve at the Van Ness station, an inspector observed a train operator whose cab had a number of newspapers in plain view. While the inspector did not see the operator reading the papers, the appearance was “that at some time during his shift he was being distracted by the news articles.”
In a separate instance observed in February 2010, an operator was seen speeding before leaving a vehicle unsecured while purchasing a snack in a nearby store. Speed also proved to be a concern when an inspector used a radar gun to measure the pace of M-line trains in 25 mph zones. Of 13 vehicles observed, five exceeded the speed limit — three were going between 26 and 28 mph, a fourth was traveling at 30 mph and a fifth was traveling at more than 35 mph.
Muni spokesman Paul Rose said such instances were isolated and every case was handled appropriately.
“These specific incidents are not reflective of our overall operations, and in each case appropriate disciplinary actions were taken to ensure this didn’t happen again,” Rose said.
Walter Scott III of the Transport Workers Union Local 250A said such instances are rare.
“That is a safety issue, but I don’t see how that’s a widespread safety issue,” Scott said. “I think they’re isolated cases.”
Off the mark
State regulators found dozens of violations during inspections of Muni facilities in recent years. Here are a few:
October 2009: The stop at Church and 22nd streets had numerous code violations that contributed to a fatality.
October 2009: The switch at Taraval Street involved in a derailment was placed back in service but was still defective.
February 2010: An operator traveled 35 mph in a 25-mph zone.
February 2010: A light-rail vehicle was left unsecured while an operator bought snacks.
April 2010: An operator appeared to be sleeping while the vehicle was in automatic mode through a tunnel.
June 2010: Junction boxes were unsecured and filled with debris and loose wires. Emergency phones were not working.
August 2010: Signal wiring was exposed and a signal malfunctioned at Fourth and King streets.
January 2011: A train was speeding through a tunnel, despite the lack of a working automatic train control system.
January 2011: Tripping hazards were seen near tracks and vegetation was overgrown.
January 2011: Newspapers were seen in the cab with an operator.