Transit officials are working on plans including social distancing measures to ensure safety on Muni rail cars when the system reopens next month. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Riders should expect big changes when Muni rail returns in August

Reconfigured routes will mean fewer, longer trains through tunnel

Muni trains will return in August, but The City’s light rail system will look notably different.

Part of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been to take dramatic action in rethinking the subway system, which has long been a frequent source of backups and delays for regular riders.

“It’s no secret that Muni’s subway has had a lot of problems in the past, particularly around reliability and crowding,” SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato wrote in an email. “Some of our plans for rail’s return had been proposed/discussed prior […] but now is an opportunity to do as much as we can, but with less.”

Though no rail lines will be eliminated, routes will be reconfigured with a focus on running fewer, longer trains through the tunnel and keeping others entirely above ground. The agency believes this should alleviate congestion and reduce passengers’ risk of exposure to COVID-19.

“This plan keeps trains moving, though we know transferring between surface and subway trains will be an inconvenience and an adjustment,” SFMTA Director of Transportation Jeffrey Tumlin wrote in a blog post on the SFMTA website.

The biggest change is that only three trains are expected to travel through the historically overcrowded tunnel: the regular N line, a newly-created all-day, three-car S shuttle and a newly combined TM line running from West Portal to Embarcadero.

The M Oceanview and T Third routes will continue on either side of this primary artery, while the L Taraval and K Ingleside surface lines will be combined into one, soon-to-be known as the LK, bookended by San Francisco Zoo and Balboa Station on either end with West Portal Station in the middle. Passengers traveling downtown can transfer to the S at West Portal or the TM at St. Francis Circle, which is already equipped with accessible inbound and outbound ramps.

The J Church will no longer go underground. Instead, it will turn around at Church and Market. Downtown-bound riders will transfer to the S or TM lines.

All lines are expected to run about every seven minutes, except for the TM which will run every 10 minutes, senior manager Sean Kennedy told the SFMTA Citizen Advisory Council at its July 9 meeting.

Making rail travel safer

Kato said the idea stemmed from Muni Working Group sessions last year that determined the number of trains in the tunnel should be reduced by 20-25% to reduce congestion. Pre-pandemic, “the findings were on their way to being implemented,” but “critical details” around transfer points still needed to be worked out, she said.

The arrival of COVID, though, made eliminating crowding within the cars and at the stops imperative.

“That means our engingeering teams have had to compress a design process that takes months into weeks in order to be ready in time,” Kato said. “We expect to have to make changes and tweaks to the designs in the coming months, but we decided that it was better not to wait for a perfect solution in order to make the subway more reliable.”

Compared to buses, rail travel presents unique challenges to creating a safe environment for riders in this current public health crisis.

Fresh air is thought to be a natural deterrent to the spread of the coronavirus. Whereas buses can keep windows down, that’s not feasible on underground trains. Typical tunnel delays therefore could pose a real risk to passengers, even masked, if they have to remain in an enclosed space for extended periods of time without proper ventilation.

SFMTA believes fewers trains in the tunnel won’t just allow the rail system to run quicker, it will also limit the possible exposure of any travelers to the coronavirus.

Another concern is overcrowding. Muni bus drivers are empowered to pass up a stop if they believe the vehicle is too crowded to guarantee adequate social distancing. But railcar operators can’t forego a stop within the tunnel, for example, Kennedy told Citizen Advisory Council members.

Kennedy said the agency is considering ways it can guide the public to adhere to guidelines, such as social distancing floor markers and extensive signage.

But what if somebody doesn’t stay six-feet away from the next nearest rider or chooses not to wear a mask despite the mayor’s order requiring them in all public spaces?

“The enforcement aspect is another issue, and our friends at the Police Department are going to have to help us out on that,” Kennedy said at the same Citizen Advisory Council meeting. He emphasized the agency doesn’t want to put vehicle operators in that position.

Larger plan

The reintroduction of rail will make more vehicles and drivers available to add additional bus service or run existing Core Service routes with more frequency.

The 7 Haight, 44 O’Shaughnessy, 45 Union/Stockton, 54 Felton, and 67 Bernal Heights lines will run the entirety of their original routes, and modified versions of the 37 Corbett to Van Ness and 48 Quintara to West Portal will be added to current service. Other planned service increases include increased weekend hours, route extension and upsizing to 60-foot buses.

But that’s likely it for quite some time.

Tumlin has made clear SFMTA doesn’t plan to restore more than 70% of pre-COVID service hours for at least the next six months, if not longer. He cautioned San Franciscans it might only feel like there is 20-25% of service, because buses can carry far fewer people in spite of increased frequency.

When rail returns, almost every available operator will be deployed to work, and due to budget constraints, the agency can’t pay them overtime to increase service hours or hire for additional operator vacancies that existed even before the arrival of COVID-19.

“Unless we are able to use those vehicles to carry more people, we will not be able to increase service any further,” Tumlin wrote on the SFMTA website.

According to Kato, SFMTA is engaged in ongoing discussions with the Department of Public Health to “develop policies and procedures which will allow distancing requirements to be relaxed while keeping transmission rates on transit low.”

Any additional service increases will come as a result of relaxing six-foot requirements or increased revenue, Kato said.

And, when they do, the goal will be “real equity.”

“While we cannot bring back 100% of the prior Muni service levels, what we can do is bring back service back in a way that shifts resources to routes most heavily used by those who depend on transit,” Tumlin wrote in his SFMTA website post.

Rail is expected to return in the middle of August, but the exact launch date is not yet set.

SFMTA will be discussing the West Portal LK and J Church transfers at public meetings later this month to determine how to make these stops accessible. The agency will also conduct educational community outreach about the changes and seek feedback from residents.

Kennedy said while these exact changes are temporary, what is permanent is the SFMTA’s desire to “improve the subway” based on changing ridership demands and community input.

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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