Less than 72 hours after Muni trains, which have been offline since March, were put back into service, they were shut down again, indefinitely.
The decision, announced late Monday evening after a day of troubled service, was caused by two developments on day three of the newly minted Muni Metro plan: the realization that overhead wire splices don’t meet manufacturer’s specifications and a positive COVID-19 test for an employee in the Transportation Management Center, which manages rail operations, according to San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Executive Director Jeffrey Tumlin
Shortly after the agency issued a formal announcement on its website, Tumlin released a long explanation of his own on Twitter in which he called Monday’s rail service “unacceptable” and apologized directly to riders.
“Muni has the capacity to act quickly and take risks. We took a risk in reopening the subway in order to take advantage of the trains’ larger capacity to support more people,” Tumlin told the San Francisco Examiner in an interview Monday night. “This time, that risk didn’t pay off, but we pivoted quickly and we are going to try something else.”
Tumlin said staff would be “reinventing the entire transit system for the third time since April” to ensure the rail routes could continue to operate with bus shuttles and no other bus lines would need to be cut. He did caution, however, that frequency would be a challenge.
Muni trains first 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. They ran on reconfigured routes intended to reduce crowding and delays in the subway tunnel.
But during the first morning rush hour Monday, parts of the system were shut down by an overhead wire problem, caused by a failed splice at Forest Hill Station at 4:42 a.m.
Electricians resolved the issue roughly five hours later, according to SFMTA Twitter updates, but the fact that system needed two splices in 72 hours raised concerns at the agency to a “risk profile beyond what we thought was tolerable,” Tumlin said.
The director said staff members were particularly concerned about a potential scenario where a downed wire forced excessive train delays with passengers on board, particularly notable in a time when being in enclosed areas with other people for extended periods isn’t advised.
Splices have been failing more often than they should since at least 2019, and repeated mechanical woes were among the problems that led to the ouster of Tumlin’s predecessor, Ed Reiskin, in April last year.
Prior to re-launching Muni Metro, SFMTA ran extensive testing on the rail, and the splices appeared to be working “fine,” according to Tumlin. He speculated in a press briefing Tuesday morning that the stress of the entire rail system running at full capacity increased tension on the wires and caused two separate splices to fail, though he did add a full metallurgical analysis was pending to identify the root of the problem.
To date, the agency has been limited in where it can procure the parts. Monday, however, SFMTA found a U.S. distributor of a Swiss-made splice that meets technical specifications and is considered very durable; it can begin supplying the agency “very soon.”
Tumlin said maintenance crews will replace the 100-plus splices throughout the overhead wire system over the coming weeks, although the agency is unprepared to make any scheduling promises yet.
The project will increase overtime costs marginally for SFMTA’s maintenance crews, which have been slashed to help balance the budget.
“The impact is more about the other maintenance activities that they won’t be able to get to because we’re focusing on re-doing all these splices,” Tumlin said.
As for the employee who tested positive for COVID-19, SFMTA wasn’t able to talk about individual cases, but it did share that a number of other employees were asked to self-quarantine as a result of contact tracing protocols.
“The fact that these two major problems are occurring at the same time has this remarkable upside,” Tumlin said. “Okay, if we have to shut down the subway because our management center is compromised, it actually gives us the time, if we race, to go and redo all of these splices.”
Tumlin said the decision to halt rail activity was made late Monday night and drivers, as well as the public, were alerted within one hour of the final decision being made.
All rail operators have been re-deployed in different roles as of Tuesday. Roughly half will be driving buses, and the other half will be providing information and assistance to customers at various stops around the Muni network, according to SFMTA Director of Transit Julie Kirschbaum.
Kirschbaum fielded questions at Tuesday’s press briefing about why there weren’t back-up workers for the transportation management center who could replace the employee who tested positive and those who had to quarantine after contact tracing protocol results.
“We do have several people in training to be rail controllers, but the fact that we haven’t had rail running for five months has directly impacted our ability to train staff to play that role,” she said. “There is a connection between not having the rail service running and not being able to complete the on-the-job training for additional staff.”
Muni continues to carry about 150,000 essential workers every day, even with a $200 million deficit in the annual operating budget and up to 40% and 80% reductions in service hours and capacity, respectively.
Tumlin credits this to the “radical resiliency” of buses and the decision to move fully to a bus-only system in April, SFMTA’s multiple reconfigurations of the Muni network and what he describes as the agency’s commitment to direct “every available service to where people with the fewest mobility choices live and work.”
Still, he unabashedly embraces this shutdown as a failure.
“I want to apologize for failing to deliver service on Monday and for having to retrench to our space of radical resiliency on a dime which means that service will be fairly rough today,” Tumlin said Tuesday. “Thank you for your patience and apologies for not delivering on the service that San Francisco deserves.”
This story has been updated with additional information and comment.