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Transit officials under pressure to improve subway service

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Muni passengers wait to file onto a Shuttle train to West Portal station at Embarcadero station on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Under increasing pressure to improve train service, transit officials on Tuesday said they’ve seen some success at West Portal Station.

By using parking control officers to direct pedestrians and vehicles, fixing problems with train signal software and giving train operators manual control of signals when the subway is congested, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency officials said they were able to reduce delays in incoming West Portal trains in the peak hours by 40 percent.

The improvement, which affected service on the K, L and M lines, was reported to the SFMTA’s board of directors Tuesday as part of a new monthly report on subway service requested by directors as part of a commitment to reducing delays.

“Where I think we made the most success in the last month is steps we’ve taken to improve how we manage West Portal,” said Julie Kirschbaum, SFMTA’s acting director of transit.

But the report also highlighted a number of delays that impacted the system overall in recent weeks.

There was a Feb. 4 breakdown of an N-Judah train that took an inordinate amount of time to tow out of service due to worker confusion.

In the middle of the day on Feb. 14, the three computers that comprise the train control system all failed at the same time, essentially stopping all the trains in the subway. “It ended up being a very unusual software glitch,” Kirschbaum said, adding that the problem is being fixed.

Another service disruption on Feb. 5 was caused by a broken switch at Castro Station.

“This was a mechanical issue that should have been caught during an inspection,” Kirschbaum said.

To better maintain the subway, she said the agency is planning to expand inspection hours, which currently run between 1:30 a.m. and about 4 a.m., so that they start around 11 p.m., as an “experiment.” “We want as much time as possible to do preventative maintenance,” she said.

Another issue highlighted by the report was the amount of time it was taking to turn around trains in Embarcadero Station on the south side of the tracks for a return trip on the north side. It can currently take up to six minutes, but Kirschbaum said that the agency is looking to adopt more of “a Nascar pit-type urgency.”

Malcolm Heinicke, chair of the SFMTA board, said that “clearly there is a design flaw there.”

“Turning those trains takes a long time,” Heinicke said, adding that it’s “wasteful” to have six minutes of train service with no riders on board.

Kirschbaum said that the agency is focused on 90-day goals, which began on Jan. 15 and will conclude on April 15, to reduce subway service delays by 10 percent and major delays to four or less each month.

There were six major delays, which are defined as those lasting 20 minutes or more, in January.

Amanda Eaken, an SFMTA board member, questioned if the agency was aggressive enough in setting its goals.

“I have a big picture question: shouldn’t the target for delay be zero? I do think there is something important about setting that as a goal, that we want to have zero delay.” She said a 10 percent reduction in delays is “probably actually harder than it seems, but how does that 10 percent put us on a trajectory to hit zero delay eventually?”

However, Kirschbaum said that the subway system delay metric is new and “I am not comfortable yet making a recommendation on what our ultimate goal should be.”

There was in January, for example, 15,000-minutes of total subway train delays during peak evening service, between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., with 149 trains in service. That figure, which is meant to capture “time wasted,” is calculated as the cumulative minutes of trains not in motion in-between station platforms or when they are stopped at a platform for more than 30 seconds.

“I am not sure that I think getting to zero is realistic, or even maybe the customer expectation of a healthy subway. It certainly needs to be a lot less than what we have,” Kirschbaum said. However she noted that the goal for major delays should be zero.

“I think a healthy subway system has a major breakdown as an anomaly.”

Kirschbaum also said the SFMTA plans to start addressing gaps in service by having at the ready “gap trains.” “So when we do have a gap in service, rather than doing a switchback, for example, or letting the gap continue, trying to have trains strategically placed throughout the system,” she said. This effort will focus initially on the M and J lines.

“There really is no silver bullet,” Kirschbaum said. “It takes a lot of small changes.”

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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