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Muni train breakdowns causing longer subway delays

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Muni train breakdowns are leading to longer delays in the subway system. (SF Examiner file photo)

Average delay times for passengers using Muni’s subway system almost tripled in December, even though overall breakdowns and ‘infrastructure incidents’ dropped by half.

Julie Kirschbaum, acting director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, presented the data on subway system breakdowns for the previous year at Tuesday’s board meeting in what she called a “frank and honest discussion.”

While breakdowns are on the decline overall, she said, “The incidents we are having are more severe and more disruptive to more people,” said Kirschbaum.

Between September and November of 2018, subway breakdowns and incidents occurred an average of 124 times a month with an average delay of 12 minutes per incident. By December, breakdowns had dropped to 72 a month, but delay times shot up to 30 minutes per incident.

Even a 30-seconds delay can ripple and adversely affect service, Kirschbaum said, noting that even an operator’s restroom break creates a measurable impact.

SFMTA staff said they’re on the cusp of solving some problems at the root of these railway breakdowns, but were not able to say when that would happen.

During the course of her presentation Kirschbaum identified train ‘coupler issues’ as the “single most important source of failure.” Couplers join train cars together and link systems for the operator to manage from the front of the car.

A failure in train couplers has lead to a variety of issues with the steps and brakes in the subway cars. The pervasiveness of the issue has evoked an almost romantic solution to the problem.

“When we find two trains that are happy together, we make an effort to keep them together,” said Kirschbaum.

Moving forward, Muni hopes to mitigate breakdowns and delays with an increase in available mechanics along with the strategic placement of empty trains, otherwise known as ‘gap’ cars, to respond to unexpected delays.

Communicating the context and expected time of delays around an incident should also improve with the installation of a new dual microphone radio system for the train cars, an upgrade that buses now utilize.

Malcolm Heinicke, vice-chair of the board of directors for the SFMTA wanted members of the public to know these issues are personal for him. Heinicke, who takes transit daily, recounted two times Muni left him, along with his family, stranded with no explanation.

“This board gets it, we aren’t oblivious, we see it.” Heinicke said.


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