The "holiday" tree at the SFMTA is covered with torn copper wire and other broke train pieces. (Courtesy photo)

Muni’s tree trinkets serve as reminder

It is, perhaps, one of the strangest looking Christmas trees in San Francisco.

At the seventh floor of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, past banks of cubicles stands a white plastic tree not more than 2 feet tall. No, it isn’t festooned with the customary colored orbs, or even Star Wars ornaments.

There are no hanging reindeer, no angels, and no grinning St. Nick.

In lieu of tinsel, the tree is wrapped in torn cable-car copper wiring. Instead of multi-colored lights, blue “emergency” markers blink festively.
For John Haley, director of transit operations at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, it’s a tree with meaning.

For many years since he’s been at the SFMTA, he’s decorated a similar tree for its workers.

First off, it’s a “holiday tree,” Haley said, by way of correction. Through his thick Massachusetts accent, he explained, “We take this out to remind everyone of the successes of our workforce.”

The headlines flash every month, many in this newspaper: Cable cars knocked out by rain, trains delayed at Powell Street station. But during the holidays, Haley likes to recall the moments when Muni engineers overcame mounting technical hurdles to get San Franciscans where they need to go.
Haley picks up a metal pipe from under the tree, a strange “present.” It’s a sander hose, he said, which runs underneath light rail vehicles. In 2010 they were the bane of Muni and its riders — the hoses would regularly tear at the wires of the automated train control system that lay on the tunnel tracks.

Trains stalled. Riders complained. Engineers were stumped.

The solution proved to be MacGyver-esque: plastic ties. They hold the sander hoses up, Haley said, and the cables were safe.

All of the tree’s decorations have a similar tale: Silver pins hanging from one branch ensure train doors don’t hang wide open, a burnt circuit board is like a “ghost of Christmas past” from an on-board train computer, and a sign reading “Out of Service” tops the tree.

There are too many tales for this small space. But just enough to remind Haley’s crew of those tense moments when the trains have stopped, the pressure is on, and the only way to move Muni’s fleet is an engineer’s best tool — ingenuity.

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