San Francisco’s underground subway tunnel, devoid of Muni Metro service for nearly a year, will soon be reopened for passenger service.
The N-Judah and the T-Third to West Portal will come back online in May 2021, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency announced at its board meeting on Tuesday, allowing for travel by Muni Metro all the way from West Portal to the Embarcadero.
Trains haven’t trundled and grumbled through the downtown tunnel since March 2020, when the SFMTA shuttered rail service in response to declining ridership caused by the pandemic and stay-at-home orders.
“We as an agency are very anxious to get service back in place,” SFMTA Director of Transit Julie Kirschbaum said. “We understand that it is a huge impact to our customers not to have full service running.”
SFMTA briefly brought back rail service in August 2020, but defective splices — the piece of hardware that helps the train switch tracks — and a COVID-19 case in the train controller unit almost immediately triggered a second shutdown.
Of the 161 splices that were deemed in need of repair throughout the Market Street and Sunset subway tunnels, 47 have been removed and 114 have been replaced. Staff has also laid down 10,000 feet of new wire.
Kirschbaum emphasized the agency’s desire to avoid a repeat of the August debacle. She said the agency will run “mock service” that essentially replicates revenue service on the system for at least two weeks before opening up to passengers, a step it failed to take last year.
“One of the key lessons we learned from reopening in August is that we did not put enough stress on the system,” Kirschbaum said, adding the hope is that any major issues that might surface will do so ahead of passengers being on trains.
But Kirschbaum also issued a note of caution about the limits of the system in its current form. She reminded the board that the subway system has a “tremendous amount of deferred capital” and a glitchy, antiquated train control system. Both will require up to a decade of dedicated work to adequately upgrade and modernize.
“We have made a huge down payment on subway reliability with the work that we have completed, and I am confident that the subway is ready to reopen,” she said. “I am not confident that we will never have an issue again because what is needed is a sustained five to 10 years of investment and replacement.”
Bus service will continue to run in place of trains on the K-Ingleside, L-Taraval and M-Ocean View through the spring in order to balance restricted resources and provide ample time to complete necessary work in other parts of the subway system.
A surface-only J-Church route returned in December with temporary transfers on Church Street at Market and Duboce streets, and it will continue as such for the time being.
Restoration of the N-Judah and the full route of T-Third were selected because they have seen some of the heaviest ridership across the system, particularly the N-Judah, according to transit agency officials.
“We have abundant capacity on those,” SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin said of the Muni Metro routes that will continue to be served by buses. “We have crowding on the N bus that we have been trying to address with additional frequency, so we are eager to restore rail service because of larger capacity.”
Although SFMTA is targeting May as the reopen date, it’s possible that timeline could be accelerated if economic activity in The City, largely dictated by COVID-19 restrictions and vaccination rates, demands it.
SFMTA must renew its Automatic Train Control Safety Certification, an onsite testing process that’s expected to wrap up in March. Once that’s wrapped, the agency has more flexibility in how quickly it might be able to bring back train service.
“We have also included a cushion, so if The City is tracking towards recovery or if we’re at a point where we’re seeing something like 50 percent indoor dining in downtown restaurants, we certainly have the flexibility to act more quickly assuming that certification is completed,” Kirschbaum said.
Bringing back these trains will allow SFMTA to reallocate resources and workforce toward other transit routes and agency priorities, but Tumlin repeatedly emphasized to the board that bringing back Muni routes across The City will require trade-offs and difficult decisions.
Staff will return to the board in late March with a deeper dive into options as to how to prioritize which transit lines return to service, as well as how to fund other priorities such as state-of-good repair, Vision Zero and Slow Streets, among many others.