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Muni memo reveals internal agency struggle to solve operator shortage

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A Muni driver waits as passengers board the 5R-Fulton Rapid bus at Market and Powell streets. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The backbone of San Francisco’s commute, Muni, is suffering a citywide slowdown.

But that transportation crisis might have been averted, some transit officials allege, if warnings of operator training shortages late last year had been heeded.

Internal strife within the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency over how to handle that shortage was revealed by an internal memo obtained by the San Francisco Examiner in a public records request.

The Oct. 2017 email sent to the SFMTA training division by Julie Kirschbaum, from SFMTA’s transit division, warned of major changes coming to Muni operations in 2018 that could potentially cause service slowdowns if Muni did not keep pace in training new and existing operators.

Fast forward seven months and that fear has seemingly come to pass: SFMTA did not train enough operators to meet the changes impacting Muni, leading to a citywide service slowdown. Muni riders now see waits between 20 and 40 minutes — and sometimes longer — for buses normally arriving ten minutes apart.

The October letter obtained by the Examiner from Kirschbaum anticipated this future.

“The transit division is in a period of transformative change,” Kirschbaum wrote. Yet, she wrote, “we are currently short operators, especially part-time operators, at all divisions and are struggling with open runs and high overtime usage.”

Different initiatives underway at SFMTA simultaneously made it clear more operator training was needed, Kirschbaum wrote: from the launch of new technologically advanced Siemens light rail vehicles, which require operators to be re-trained, to implementing new radio technology systemwide to promotions, operator retirements and the legally-required “general sign up” allowing Muni operators to switch vehicles.

That general sign up has “historically led to open runs and a high training burden,” Kirschbaum wrote in the email, “we look forward to partnering with Training to meet these needs.”

Though that training pipeline problem ultimately wasn’t solved in time to prevent this recent Muni citywide slowdown, Paul Rose, an agency spokesperson, said SFMTA will correct the issue.

Read the full letter here.

“This is an ongoing agencywide issue and despite our efforts, everything didn’t go as planned,” Rose wrote, in a statement. “We continue to do our best to adjust to the changing transportation landscape that saw new buses and trains come online, the addition of more Muni service and additional training needed for the use of new technology (new radio system and Transportation Management Center). We are all working together to fill these runs as soon as possible.”

Rose said SFMTA will be “exploring options” to train even more operators on existing vehicles, recruit retired operators to “come back and help,” recruit more part-time operators and implement new attendance policies to help reduce the operator shortage.

Irwin Lum, a past president of the Muni operator union, TWU Local 250-A, said the email showed SFMTA “tried to put too many changes in at once.”

“The training department couldn’t handle it,” he said. But he also noted that Kirschbaum and the transit department should have anticipated the training department would not have been able to keep pace with all the historic service boosts they were trying to implement at Muni.

“I think her expectations were too high,” Lum said. “This place don’t function like that, you know what I mean?”

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