Operating the Muni Metro subway at full capacity

On Nov. 9, 2018 the San Francisco Examiner (“Muni to speed up purchase of new Muni trains to ease commute crowding”) characterized Muni’s forthcoming new light-rail vehicles as a way of easing congestion in the Muni Metro subway. That characterization needs a little refinement. First it is true that during off peak hours the new cars will make using the system more attractive. New cars always help.

But focusing on new cars completely ignores the fundamental underlying reason for the unbearable peak period crowding both in the trains and on subway platforms.

The Muni Metro system was designed to run four and five-car trains. Most subway systems in the world operate 10-car trains, and there’s a good reason for this. Since time intervals between trains have to remain at about two minutes or longer to ensure safety, the only way of materially increasing peak-period carrying capacity is to make the trains longer.

Longer peak-period trains operating in the Market Street subway would offer two major advantages. The first is that it would allow the system to accommodate many more peak-period riders. The second and even more important benefit is that it would allow people waiting for a given train to spread out along the entire length of the platform, rather than forcing them to collect in a smaller area. The excessive platform crowding caused by unnecessarily short “trains” both slows loading and puts jammed-together patrons at risk of being accidentally pushed off the platform and into the trackway.

The current unsafe and otherwise unsatisfactory situation under Market Street was caused by a short-sighted decision in the mid-1990s to abandon the original four and five-car operations because Muni was having difficulties at its West and Duboce Portals joining the shorter units operating along the avenues into the longer trains needed for high-capacity subway travel. Instead of tackling the coupling problem directly, Muni management elected to do away with the process, thereby reducing the peak-period carrying potential of the Muni Metro subway by two-thirds.

To make coupling work the process needs to be fast and reliable, and the timing of the incoming vehicles from the avenues needs to be split-second. Impossible? Probably….if this were 1930. But given subsequent technological advances, not at all impossible in the 1990s and certainly not impossible in 2018.

With four and five-car trains, the San Francisco Muni Metro subway would be capable of moving at least three times as many peak-period riders as today’s system can manage. This is too important a benefit to ignore, or obfuscate with rosy promises of the benefits of new cars.

Gerald Cauthen is president of the Bay Area Transportation Working Group.

Gerald Cauthen
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Gerald Cauthen

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