Editor’s note and update: SFMTA Executive Director Jeffrey Tumlin announced late Monday evening that Muni’s light-rail system would be shutting down again due to overhead wire problems and a COVID-19 diagnosis that forced several staff members to go into quarantine. For more information go here.
The familiar hum of Muni rail cars returned to the streets of San Francisco Saturday morning, more than five months after a shelter-in-place order that brought many ordinary activities, including most public transportation, to a halt.
But in the first morning rush hour Monday after the trains returned, that pleasant sound was accompanied by something else all too familiar to frequent Muni Metro riders: an overhead wire problem, this one a failed splice caused by an early test train at Forest Hill at 4:42 a.m.
Instead of catching a train, riders at West Portal instead had to board a shuttle bus to travel between West Portal, Forest Hill and Castro stations while train service continued between Embarcadero and Castro.
Electricians resolved the issue roughly five hours later, according to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Twitter updates, though the agency cautioned “minor residual delays” would still be possible.
“Our first weekday of new Muni service will be rough […],” SFMTA Executive Director Jeffrey Tumlin wrote on Twitter of the downed lines. Tumlin used the platform to provide regular and detailed updates on the return of rail throughout the entire weekend, noting issues with signs and checking on new transfer points.
SFMTA called Saturday’s roll-out the “broadest and most complex service changes since the start of COVID-19 shelter-in-place order.”
The biggest change is that only three trains will travel through the historically overcrowded downtown tunnel: the regular N line, a newly-created subway-only S Shuttle and a combined TM line running from West Portal to Embarcadero.
Changes unrolled Saturday also included the restoration or expansion of 11 bus routes and increased frequencies on 13 other bus routes.
Riders told the Examiner Monday morning that they felt safe on the light rail, and said fellow passengers were compliant with social distancing and mask guidelines.
“I saw about ten other passengers on the train and everybody took care to space out. All had properly worn masks, Shahin Saneinejad said of his first ride on the new surface-only KL Taraval-Ingleside line.
Saneinejad, who took Muni Metro about four times per week before the pandemic hit, said the newly minted West Portal Station transfer point to downtown was clumsy, with many passengers confused about the best way to cross the street to board the TM Third-Oceanview or the S Shuttle.
“I noticed that transfer passengers from the eastbound KL to the tunnel at West Portal tried to cross in front of the train on Ulloa, some sprinted across the tracks and others had to wait on the sidewalk for the KL to pass,” he said.
Other passengers also said wayfinding could be improved.
SFMTA has installed new onboard system maps and pavement decals at Church at Market and West Portal stations to help riders navigate the transfers, but key signage from the printer was delayed due to supply chain hold-ups. Temporary paint jobs were installed over the weekend by Public Works as a holdover.
A spokesperson said the agency hopes to receive signage later this week, but clarified that more permanent signs won’t be implemented until the temporary emergency measures — referring to the changes in the rail system — “go through a public process and approvals.”
The accuracy of arrival time and destination information was also an issue.
While Robin Kutner, who rode the N Judah, said there were “no delays,” and “clocks and NextBus were accurate,” her experience wasn’t shared by all.
Predictions from NextBus, the app that provides real-time arrival information, for the TM were “temporarily disabled” Monday morning, according to the agency.
Roan Kattouw, a local transit enthusiast, said arrival times for the S Shuttle, a subway-only line between West Portal and Embarcadero, were off by double digits earlier in the weekend. He said it might give an arrival time of 30-minutes, but the train would arrive a mere five minutes later.
Tumlin himself acknowledged there was “lots of work to do” to make the system more navigable, but said that crews were engaged in “creative troubleshooting” to address “lots of small problems” popping up during the three-day launch of a revamped system that’s been dormant for nearly five months.
SFMTA also moved a number of ambassadors to the transfer points to answer rider questions. Kattouw and others told the Examiner the ambassadors were upbeat and informative.
“Staff onsite was super helpful, and actively asked confused looking people where they were trying to go,” he said.
While the SFMTA has said all rail lines will run every 14 minutes or less, riders reported sizable delays over the weekend and into Monday morning, a situation exacerbated by the overhead wire problem.
Operator availability slowed things down, too, causing both the J Church and the L Taraval to operate bus-only shuttles to their respective transfer points at Church and Market and West Portal at some points.
Hiccups aside, many riders appeared eager to begin reintroducing both rail and bus travel into their lives.
“I’m an essential worker, and while I mostly work-from-home, I have been working on-site in a lab intermittently since March. I have never owned a car, so I really rely on Muni,” Kutner said.