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Muni tests newest trains during controversial subway shutdown

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A conductor drives the N-Judah train through a tunnel during a midnight test of the new Muni LRV trains in San Francisco, Calif. Friday, July 21, 2017. (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez/S.F. Examiner)
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It’s midnight in San Francisco, just two days before the Muni Metro subway is set to close on weekends to test Muni’s “future fleet” of trains.

As The City sleeps, Emmanuel Enriquez, a Muni light-rail vehicle test supervisor, grips the handles of a brand new train as it blasts through Sunset Tunnel near Duboce and Church streets.

By private automobile standards, the train’s 40 mph speed is perhaps sluggish. But compared to the usual speed of a Muni train — about 20 mph — it’s nearly supersonic.

The subway lights streaked by, yet the train didn’t rattle with the fervor of its older cousins.

It glided smoothly, emitting a high-pitched futuristic whine like a Toyota Prius. Numerous electronic sensors on the train’s underside, connected by a spaghetti bowl of cables inside the cabin, measured even the tiniest shake in the vehicle.

A man sent to evaluate the work by the Siemens engineers who built the rail car cupped his headphones in his left hand and jotted notes with his right. He looked up at Enriquez and nodded. The train slowed to a halt.

“OK, Billy!” Enriquez shouted, instructing engineer Billy Gibson on the “B” side of the train to accelerate the train in reverse.

This exercise early Friday morning, which also included a “stability” test, was one of numerous trials the new trains will be subjected to in the coming weeks, as the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency closes down the Muni Metro subway tunnels each weekend until Aug. 20. (There will be exceptions for Giants games and the Outside Lands music festival, Aug. 11-13.)

Riders numbered in the tens of thousands, who ride the J, K, L, M, N and T lines will see their commutes shifted to bus-bridges, or alternative transportation, for a cause.

John Haley is keenly aware of this.

The director of transportation at the SFMTA, Haley is effectively the head honcho of Muni operations. Before the test-run, the engineers smiled and shook Haley’s hand as he walked into the Muni Metro East railyard in the Dogpatch.

As the tests wore on, Haley sat on one of the train’s benches in his flourescent yellow hoodie, his San Francisco Giants cap pulled tight. He closed his eyes and listened to the quiet orchestra of the train’s acceleration.

Since the trains arrived in February, the SFMTA has tested them as they’ve sat at Muni Metro East, undergoing what engineers call “static tests.” But running the trains in the subway, in motion, reveals problems static tests do not.

“You’ve got to make adjustments,” Haley said.

He ticked off a few of the changes: Cables in the subway had to be raised higher to avoid smacking the trains, and areas around the track along the N-Judah line were widened.

“The whole platform was rebuilt,” Haley said, and headlights were changed so the L-Taraval and N-Judah wouldn’t shine brightly “into living rooms where people are watching TV.”

Some hazards make the testing process a delicate balance, according to Enriquez, who is training his engineers. The engineers, in turn, are training operators to run the trains at the same time as they’re being tested. “The controls are very similar” to the older light-rail vehicles, Enriquez said, “except it’s 25 years more advanced.”

Another obstacle comes in the form of drivers who errantly steer their cars into Muni tunnels. When this happens, the SFMTA loses an entire night’s worth of testing.

Enriquez pulled out his phone and showed the San Francisco Examiner a photo of a white car with a crumpled hood “wrapped” around a pole beside the Muni tracks.

“We never found the driver,” Enriquez said of the person who apparently abandoned the vehicle on the tracks.

Those train-troubles were relatively minor, however, and there have been no “show-stoppers yet,” Haley said.

Ryan Parkinson, an engineering manager for testing at Siemens, said the toughest trials are yet to come. The weekend closures will see the most difficult tests, which could only be conducted in the subway: compatibility between the trains and the Automatic Train Control System.

“We’ll be focusing on the handshake,” Parkinson said. It’s the tricky moment in which control is passed from human operator to machine, right as a train enters the tunnel. For years, and to the ire of many Muni riders, the transit agency could not execute the exchange properly.

Muni light-rail vehicles enter subways at least 2,000 times a day, Haley said. But as Parkinson explained, the operator must maintain the train’s speed between 5 and 8 mph within the few-seconds-long interval right when the train passes over the threshold to the subway, allowing the train to “catch” onto a communications connector in the subway.

For a Muni operator, it’s akin to threading a needle. It’s a precise action that, when done right, no one notices. If done poorly, however, trains see delays that riders almost certainly crow about.

If trains miss that “handshake” 20 or more times a day, Haley said, it constitutes a slowdown that ripples throughout the system. It’s this computer handshake that the Siemens trains must be tested for during the shutdown, Parkinson said.

“You can do weeks worth of testing in one [weekend] closure,” Parkinson said, whereas a normal test-run on a weeknight yields only two hours of test time, at most.

As the Siemens train again gunned down the Sunset Tunnel yet at 40 mph, Parkinson stood with a hand grasping a rail like a rider. He said he’s confident Siemens and the SFMTA can get the trains geared up by their Aug. 20 deadline. That’s the day Haley plans to take testing documents in a “big wheelbarrow” straight to the California Public Utilities Commission to certify the trains to run.

It’s also the last day of scheduled train testing during subway closures.

Haley is working under the wire — with all of San Francisco waiting for his trains to arrive.

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