Riders wait to board a train at the Castro Muni Metro station during the morning commute on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. The system was shut down again later that day after less than three days in operation due to a combination of mechanical and staffing issues. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Muni Metro closed until end of the year, maybe longer

Transit director gives SFMTA Board a ‘ballpark’ date

Muni Metro — the beleaguered light rail rail system that shut down just three days after its relaunch last week — will not open until at least the end of the year, officials said Tuesday.

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency transit director Julie Kirschbaum told the agency’s Board of Directors Tuesday this was a “ballpark” timeline, and reiterated they “do have to work through a lot of open questions between now and then.”

Trains ground to a halt August 24 after two splices — a mechanical part that connects subway overhead wires — failed in under 72 hours, causing a “catastrophic outage of service,” and a rail controller tested positive for the coronavirus, forcing two additional technically-trained employees to self-quarantine.

Backup rail controllers aren’t readily available. Full training includes extensive technical acumen as well as on-the-job practice, which Kirschbaum said hasn’t been tenable given the rail system’s closure.

These two mechanical malfunctions were not the first of their kind for SFMTA.

One failed in April 2019, causing half-day delays for trains. Another broke in May while the system lay dormant.

Officials have said the splice breakages from Muni Metro’s opening weekend in August were unforeseen because they never tested the durability of the overhead wire system with all the trains running, and the significantly increased wire tension could have been the culprit.

Kirschbaum said the agency should have run a full test, in hindsight.

Focus will now shift towards replacing faulty splices system-wide, officials told the board.

A metallurgical analysis revealed the failed parts were made of a metal quality that didn’t meet manufacturer standards, staff told the board, despite them being the same splices used throughout the system for nearly a decade.

SFMTA placed an emergency order for 200 new splices from a new manufacturer late last week, and the parts are expected to arrive by October 20. The agency will then replace between 70 and 154 splices, each replacement eating up two to three hours.

The rail relaunch might have been a failure, but officials remain determined to use the time “ambitiously” to catch up on deferred maintenance and repairs as well as create emergency redundancy for key roles such as rail controller, ensure riders of the safety and cleanliness of existing transit routes and explore ways to deliver service to all corners of The City.

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