Muni cuts training hours to boost number of train operators, combat driver shortage

In its scramble to roll out qualified train operators quickly amid a citywide Muni slowdown caused by an operator shortage, The City’s transportation agency has cut its standards and reduced the training hours for train operators, the San Francisco Examiner has learned.

Additionally, the number of hours certified trainers teach operators has been cut. Instead, operators are partially trained by other, already-trained operators that may not be certified trainers themselves — a practice that has the Muni operators union crying foul.

“If operators themselves don’t feel safe with their own training, how safe is the service being provided?” said Roger Marenco, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A, in an August interview with the Examiner.

Buses sat cold in Muni yards across The City from late April to late July because Muni did not have enough drivers to run them, the San Francisco Examiner found in an investigation in late July. This was not due exclusively to a lack of new hires, but instead to a complex breakdown in the internal training process for operators switching from driving buses to trains, and internally switching driving jobs in other ways, according to Muni officials.

Since then, Mayor London Breed and the riding public have called for solutions. But while the Twin Peaks Tunnel reopened August 25 and bus operators were freed from driving shuttles to resume driving regular service, easing the citywide slowdown, Muni officials highlighted a need to prevent train service from also lagging by boosting Muni’s training department.

The decision by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which runs Muni, to change its training practices is a novel one for the agency. Previously, operators were trained to pilot the agency’s newest “future fleet” light rail vehicles, known as LRV4, by Transportation Safety Institute certified trainers, a partner of the federal government that certifies rail and other transportation trainers nationwide.

Now, the time that operators are trained by TSI certified trainers has been slashed in half, with the other half of training provided by six “expert operators” in order to increase the speed at which operators were trained, which was revealed in an Aug,. 21 internal Muni Division Bulletin obtained by the Examiner.

The bulletin also reveals training time for operators on LRV4 will be shortened from 54 hours to 50 hours, and from six days to five days.

While Marenco, the Muni union head, told the Examiner operators and trainers felt this practice was unsafe, he acknowledged its speed: by his estimation the practice has roughly tripled the training rate from eight operators trained every five days to 24 operators trained every six. But that has come at the expense of vital classroom training, he said.

The bulletin also echoed this, and reads “it has been determined that the training sessions will shift more emphasis on interactive training and reduced classroom time training.” Operators days off were also “changed accordingly,” according to the bulletin.

Inside City Hall last week, SFMTA Director of Transit John Haley said the practice was safe and was being “discussed” with the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates California rail safety and reviews SFMTA rail practices. The CPUC did not confirm this before press time.

“What’s not safe about it?” Haley asked, rhetorically. “It’d be one thing if we were training new operators. But they’ve already been certified. They know operating rules. They know signals.”

Essentially, Haley argued, operators learning to run the LRV4 “future fleet” are not new operators learning trains and trackway safety for the first time, but instead are experienced Muni operators learning the ins and outs of Muni’s futuristic new train cars.

“Our inability to get service on the street now is (due to) a backlog of training,” Haley said, and acknowledged “It’s a stop-gap measure right now. It allows us to run the service we’re committed to.”

Marenco was skeptical.

“The agency failed to plan,” he said, “or planned to fail.”

joe@sfexaminer.com

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez
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