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Muni’s brand new buses struggle with SF’s hills, test results show

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SF Examiner file photo. (Ekevara Kitpowsong/ Special to S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco is on a bus-buying spree. In the name of shoring up service, Mayor Ed Lee has invested nearly $26 million in purchasing new Muni buses since last year.

There is, however, a bump in the road: Some of Muni’s newest buses appear to struggle up San Francisco’s hills.

While the buses aren’t exactly rolling back down The City’s slopes, underpowered buses slow down Muni’s system, operators tell the San Francisco Examiner.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency tested its newest buses last November before letting rubber hit the cement, but the results of those tests — obtained by the Examiner — show Muni’s
new 60-foot electric buses don’t meet the agency’s own acceleration requirements for even moderately steep hills.

SFMTA officials told the Examiner they knew the buses couldn’t handle grades above 10 percent, so the agency would run them only on The City’s flatter routes.

Among the steepest routes in the Muni system are the 1-California and the 22-Fillmore. One portion of Fillmore is graded at over 18 percent, according to topographical maps.

Hills that steep will be off limits to the new buses.

The tests show, however, that the buses struggled even on the more modest hills — those measured in grades of 5 to 10 percent.

Additionally, the approximately 100 new electric buses may not be available to supplement out of service vehicles on steeper routes. The buses won’t be able to be plugged in as backups anywhere on the system, and are only usable on flatter terrain.

“That’s a reasonable decision,” said Peter Straus, a former SFMTA planner and now member of the San Francisco Transit Riders, an advocacy group.

“Not every bus needs to go everywhere and do everything,” he said.

Ordering double-engine, double length buses that could handle The City’s hills, Straus said, is an “additional cost, additional weight, and it’s a nonstandard product. You have to cross your fingers.”

Transit officials say they are satisfied with the new buses’ performance.

“They go up the hills, they carry people every day,” said John Haley, SFMTA’s director of transit.

Haley said the buses pass the “official” New Flyer diagnostics on moderately steep grades, and provided documentation which showed those tests were passed.

But a different document from Nov. 30, 2015, titled “SR1849 XT60 Performance Test Results — Coach 7210” indicates the new 60-foot trolleys failed key benchmarks for tackling San Francisco’s hilly topography at “required” speeds, as defined by SFMTA engineers.

A screenshot of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's test of grades, or hills, for its new electric trolley buses.

A screenshot of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s test of grades, or hills, for its new electric trolley buses.

Compare and contrast two tests of Muni’s new buses on SF’s hills
Read the internal memo of hill testing here.
Read what SFMTA calls its “official test” here.
The Examiner has embedded interactive “notes” from the reporter within the document. Click yellow highlighted text to read them.

A longtime Muni operator, who did not want to be named to protect his job, said the new buses are a poor fit for The City.

“The [new trolley buses] have good straight line power, but have difficulty with grades,” the operator said. “This is troubling, especially because San Francisco’s fleet is called upon to climb the steepest terrain of any trolley-coach system in the world on a daily basis.”

The test results document the 60-foot trolley coaches’ performance on flat ground, on a 5 percent grade and on a 10 percent grade. Geary Boulevard’s western inclines, for example, are graded between 5 and 10 percent, according to topographical maps of The City.

The results show the new buses did not meet Muni speed requirements in four out of nine tests. In some cases it took the buses twice as long as intended to accelerate on 5 and 10 percent grades.

Out of 11 acceleration tests SFMTA conducted along eight different hills, the buses failed to meet requirements in 10 instances.

Though the time is measured in seconds, operators told the Examiner that the slowdown would be noticeable.

Haley defended the new buses, and said the numbers in that test “are what we call the ‘wish list’” from SFMTA engineers.

The document does not say “wish list,” however, but “Speed Required.”

Haley said the numbers were for internal metrics only, and were not contractual numbers The City would hold New Flyer to meet.

The “wish list” tests were conducted by seven staffers from a variety of agencies: officials from New Flyer, SFMTA quality assurance, SFMTA operations and SFMTA engineering.

When asked why staffers conducted speed tests as part of a “wish list,” Haley said, “I don’t know why they exist.” Haley added the real question should be, “Is the vehicle performing as specified or designed?”

“The fact is, it does,” he said.

Haley did not note how Muni’s older buses — manufactured by Electric Transit Inc. — perform on hills in comparison to the New Flyers, the older buses are “a maintenance nightmare.” For instance, he pointed to a day earlier this month in which the handful of ETI buses in the fleet accounted for 42 percent of all breakdowns.

“I cannot get them out of here fast enough,” he said.

He did not, however, show the Examiner speed tests for the older buses.

The New Flyer buses were purchased for $1.1 million each in conjunction with King County Metro, which runs Seattle’s transit system. San Francisco and Seattle are the only two only cities in the U.S. that require its buses to tackle steep hills, Haley said.

King County Metro spokeswoman Rochelle Ogershok told the Examiner that their agency also opted to run the 60-foot electric trolleys on flatter lines. She said New Flyer issued warnings about running the buses on any hill steeper than a 10 percent grade.

New Flyer made that limitation “clear to King County Metro,” Ogershok said. Haley said New Flyer warned the San Francisco agency that grades more than 10 percent would wear out the traction motors on the 60-foot trolleys.

“New Flyer was concerned we’re running it where it’s designed to run,” he said.

To purchase more powerful buses, the SFMTA would’ve had to go through the process of
ordering buses “all over again,” he said, a process that could take up to 10 years.

In that scenario, he said, SFMTA wouldn’t have the buses needed to speed up service now, when they are needed most.

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