J Church train returns to city streets

Quiet Saturday rollout the start of a gradual resumption of rail service

Once a familiar sight, the long-absent J Church train trundled down city streets for the first time in months Saturday, carrying passengers between Balboa Park Station and Church and Duboce streets.

The train, the first to return to service since August, is only traveling on surface tracks as far as its new terminus at Church and Duboce, where passengers heading to or from downtown must transfer to an alternate line. For now, those lines are running with buses, but eventually they’ll also transition back to trains.

The train will run from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, arriving every 12 minutes.

Saturday’s quiet debut, which drew relatively few riders, is part of a larger plan by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to relaunch Muni Metro train service with fewer delays, higher train frequencies and less congestion.

When all routes are back online, the agency will limit how many lines actually go underground in an effort to reduce the all-too-familiar traffic jams that would occur pre-pandemic. This means some passengers will need to transfer to another train when they reach the subway.

SFMTA first tried to roll out this retooled subway plan in August, but the party lasted for only three days before the agency shut the operation down entirely due to failures with overhead wire splices, an hours-long delay during Monday rush hour and a case of COVID-19 in the staff that triggered self-quarantine for a number of key operators.

No such problems were immediately reported with the J Church line as of Saturday afternoon, and the SFMTA social media account hadn’t reported any delays.

The transit agency will be unveiling new trains at a much slower pace this time around.

Next up is the T Third line on Jan. 23.

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