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Mixed reviews for Muni’s plan to get on track

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Muni’s bus service still hasn’t met all of its on-time goals. (Kevin Hume/S.F. Examiner file photo)

The summer’s Muni meltdown has cooled off, but bus service still hasn’t met The City’s on-time targets, data released Friday shows.

The City’s transportation agency is still struggling to hire enough drivers to operate Muni bus service, but has managed to resolve its self-described “pipeline problem” bringing existing train operators up to speed on its new light rail vehicles, transportation officials said Friday.

As first revealed by a San Francisco Examiner investigation in July, a confluence of circumstances resulted in a shortage of bus drivers, leading to a city-wide service slowdown. Just as more drivers were needed to operate additional buses to compensate for the Twin Peaks tunnel closure, Muni’s training division was tasked with bringing existing train operators up to speed on newly-purchased and badly-needed light rail vehicles.

“Over the summer, we weren’t performing up to our standards – and certainly not to what the city deserves,” said Julie Kirschbaum, acting director of transit at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which runs Muni.

Nov. 30 marked the end of a 90-day plan to “right the ship,” Kirschbaum said, and numbers released by the SFMTA on Friday show the agency has met some of its targets while other areas still lag.

On-time performance for “low-frequency routes” – lines on which buses are only scheduled every half hour or so – still drags at just 55 percent, well below the agency’s own target of 63 percent. That means almost half the time a bus on a low-frequency route didn’t arrive within a five-minute window of its scheduled time.

Rather than focusing on making its rapid bus lines meet schedules, Muni concentrated on reducing gaps between buses. The “rapid” system is a key collection of rider-heavy lines which are sped up by serving fewer stops. The agency met its dependability goal on the rapid routes; 88 percent of the time a rider had to wait five minutes or less.

Light rail performance didn’t fare as well, according to agency data. Riders waited longer than five minutes for their next train 21 percent of the time.

Kirschbaum said the 90-day improvement plan did not set metrics for bus lines that fall in-between two particular categories – buses that are neither low-frequency nor rapid routes – and didn’t have performance figures immediately available for them.

To improve service during the last 90 days, Muni was granted permission by their regulators at the California Public Utilities Commission to allow inspectors in the transit division to familiarize existing train operators on the new light rail cars, freeing up resources in the training department.

The agency also examined whether operators out on long-term leave could be brought back to work.

“We looked at every single case to say, is this someone who has all of their documentation up-to-date on a leave, or is this somebody that is further along in the process and we want to get back more quickly?” Kirschbaum said.

In total, 131 operators returned to work from long-term leave in the last three months.

Muni also made structural improvements, replacing two of the oldest railroad switches in the subway system, which route cars to either West Portal or Duboce and Church stations. Software visualization tools were deployed to allow operators in the control center to more easily compare buses’ current location to their ideal positions to maintain targeted spacing.

Kirschbaum said Muni will continue to break up its strategic goals into quarterly “bite-sized pieces,” with a new 90-day improvement plan starting in January.

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