Muni defends line disruptions

Mike Koozmin/The S.F. ExaminerMuni defends that switchbacks are necessary to address service disruptions in other parts of The City.

Mike Koozmin/The S.F. ExaminerMuni defends that switchbacks are necessary to address service disruptions in other parts of The City.

Muni’s practice of stopping transit lines and turning them around before the final destination shows a disregard for passengers, doesn’t improve service and is not widely practiced by other transit agencies, according to a new civil grand jury report.

But Muni officials have defended the practice — called a switchback — as a necessary tool to address service disruptions and delays on other parts of the system. When the system gets overrun with passengers — as is expected during this weekend’s Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival — the agency needs to assign other trains to help deal with the crowds, according to Muni.

The report, released Thursday, focused on unscheduled switchbacks on Muni’s light-rail lines. The study reported that there was no statistical evidence available to show that unscheduled switchbacks help alleviate delays or improve scheduling. In comparison with several other transit agencies, including systems in Paris and New York, only one actually used the practice.

The report also stated that Muni has done a poor job of using technology to improve communications services, and that the switchbacks “showed a callous disregard for the welfare of riders.”

“It’s insulting to the riders when they’re left standing outside in the rain because of switchbacks,” said Mario Choi, one of the authors of the report.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni, strongly disputed the report, saying it exhibited “extreme institutional bias and is fraught with inflammatory language.”

John Haley, director of transit for the SFMTA, said the agency recognizes the inconvenience of the practice, and has worked on reducing the number of monthly switchbacks from a high of 264 in January to 82 in July — a decrease that was ignored in the report. He also said the agency provided ample evidence to show the need for unscheduled switchbacks.

Haley said that transit operators across the country frequently use switchbacks, and that the comparisons to Muni in the report, such as the New York subway and the Paris Metro, are run on separated railways — systems not comparable to Muni’s vehicles, which often share the road with traffic.

“I don’t think anyone has walked down Market Street and got deja vu for Paris,” Haley said.

Supervisor Scott Wiener, who has presided over Board of Supervisors hearings about Muni switchbacks, said it’s extremely frustrating for passengers when they are not alerted ahead of time about the practice.

However, he disagreed with the civil grand jury’s contention that switchbacks should only be used in the case of accidents or 

“There are times when switchbacks are necessary in order to create operational flexibilities,” Wiener said.

Haley said the agency has hired two new public information officers to provide passenger updates about switchbacks on Twitter. It has also worked on programming message signs and audio announcements in underground stations to alert passengers about upcoming switchbacks. In the next eight weeks, the agency hopes to display such updates on its NextBus electronic signs.

“What’s particularly disappointing about this is that this report represents a lost opportunity,” Haley said. “The report could have been used to engage us and engage the citizens in a dialogue in how to improve the reliability of the 


In recent months, Muni has cut switchbacks on light-rail transit lines.

Month Number of Switchbacks
January 264
February 232
March 185
April 158
May 168
June 126
July *82

*Represents 0.03 percent of all daily trips
Source: SFMTA

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