Muni has such a severe shortage of light-rail drivers that it has taken to posting some 10 shuttle buses a day in the Avenues to make up for service problems.
Click on the photo at right to see more on Muni's staffing problem.
The long-term solution to the emergency is to train and hire more operators, and the transit agency is in the midst of that process. But in the meantime, the agency has been forced to spend big bucks on overtime — so much that many operators are maxing out the amount they can work, Muni officials have confirmed. The agency is also hiring 16 part-time operators out of retirement who are already being paid a pension to fill the gaps.
But even with those stopgap measures, there are sometimes simply not enough operators to run the light-rail system. As a result, trains are often late or riders are forced to squeeze onto crowded shuttle buses.
The problem stems from a hiring freeze Muni’s management imposed about 18 months ago in response to budget woes, said agency spokesman Paul Rose. Then last year, Muni reduced its service, and didn’t want to train new operators in case layoffs were needed.
Instead, Muni operators continued to retire and not be replaced by new recruits, Rose said. He said the impending problem became apparent late last year and Muni began its first training course for new operators in February. Those first recruits will graduate this month.
During the intervening months, Muni’s reliance on overtime has crept upwards. A San Francisco Examiner analysis of Muni’s daily records shows the average number of lines operated by drivers on overtime each day was 54.6 in March and 55 in the first week of April — far higher than it was in the previous months, even during the Giants’ World Series run or during the holidays.
Rose was unable to provide a monthly breakdown of overtime payments. But a recent controller’s report said the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which manages Muni, is on pace to spend $53 million overtime this fiscal year — $20 million more than it budgeted.
Muni has more bus drivers available right now than light-rail operators, so about a month ago Muni management began placing nine or 10 buses in the Avenues, where several of San Francisco’s light-rail lines wind up, Rose said.
The buses are on standby, ready to fill in for trains that don’t show up because there are no light-rail drivers to operate them.
Rose said the problem should begin to solve itself this month, once the training academies begin producing new operators. The agency should be fully staffed again by July, he said.
“We’re going to get better and better,” he said. “In the meantime, this is what we have to do to make sure the system runs the way it should.”
Shuttle bus not a happy surprise
Because of the shortage of light-rail drivers, Muni riders have had to wait longer for trains to show up, or they’ve been greeted with a bus rather than a train at their regular train stop.
Regular N-Judah rider Kim, who declined to give her full name, said she had been forced to take a shuttle several times recently — and isn’t happy about it. Recently she rode the N-Judah from downtown toward the Sunset, but was deposited at the Church and Duboce streets stop, where riders had to crowd onto a shuttle.
The shuttle stopped more frequently and was slower than a train, and was less comfortable to ride on, because it filled up more quickly, she said. “Many people get on the shuttle — it’s packed,” she said.
The train-operator shortage appears to be impacting Muni’s on-time performance — or at least it’s resulting in more trains leaving their first stops behind schedule.
The percentage of light-rail vehicles that left the first stop on schedule has steadily gone downward since January, according to agency records.
But there’s a silver lining for frustrated riders such as Kim — the trains aren’t leaving as late as they were last fall, when Muni was battling a slate of mechanical difficulties with its trains and tracks.