Plague of Muni train switchbacks in Bayview may finally be ‘eliminated’

Imagine riding a train home only to have it stop suddenly. The operator activates the loudspeaker and asks everyone to disembark, just so the train can swing around and pick up more passengers at the beginning of the line in a wealthier neighborhood.

Welcome to the dreaded “switchback.”

Ask any Bayview Muni rider, and they’ll tell you: switchbacks are more than a nuisance, they’re a plague, and the bane of any T-Third rider just trying to get home at night.

Now switchbacks will finally be “eliminated,” said incoming Supervisor Shamann Walton.

“It’s been overdue,” Walton told the San Francisco Examiner, Thursday. “We’re hard at work on this, it’s coming.”

Officially sworn in as a supervisor on Tuesday, Walton made the announcement via Facebook on Wednesday, his first full day on the job.

Earl Shaddix, executive director of Economic Development on Third, a Bayview group, noted that ending switchbacks was one of Walton’s key campaign promises.

“From the first day I met Supervisor Walton, he promised that MTA would be held accountable and switchbacks would end,” Shaddix said. “He delivered on his first day in office.”

Walton told Bayview community members he met with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which runs Muni, Wednesday morning. The SFMTA is concentrating its efforts on upgrading a train platform near the upcoming Golden State Warriors Chase Center, which will bring increased ridership along the T-line.

But, Walton said, when SFMTA is done upgrading the station near the end of March, they plan a whole suite of efforts to eliminate switchbacks on the T-Third line.

Muni’s previously announced effort to fast-track buying 151 new train cars from contractor Siemens will allow them to boost trains on the T-Third, according to the SFMTA. A boost in hiring to combat a systemic operator shortage will also help make more trains available on the T-Third line, and SFMTA also pledged to add “more time” to existing schedules, Walton said.

Muni’s lagging service has an impact on businesses all across the Bayview, merchants said.

“Having reliable public transportation for both patrons and employees is a critical component to the success of the businesses located along the Third Street Corridor in Bayview,” said Kristin Houk, Owner of the restaurants Tato and All Good Pizza on Third Street.

While renewed service may be good news for riders past March, it’s still been a bumpy ride to get there.

SFMTA confirmed the number of switchbacks throughout the system has risen the last five years.

“While switching back trains is a way we strive to keep the service balanced across the city, we understand the frustration it brings, especially to riders closer to the ends of our rail lines,” said Ed Reiskin, director of SFMTA, in a statement. “The Bayview is a key priority area where we will initially focus our effects to address switchbacks, complementing the recent increase in service we’ve put in place.”

Only as recently as October have switchbacks started to decline systemwide by about 28 percent, Rose said. Switchbacks may also seem to have risen dramatically in SFMTA’s data because they were relying exclusively on data from the agency’s central control, whereas recently they’ve incorporated more data from inspectors.

The purchase of the Siemens trains is not entirely a done, deal, however. The SFMTA hopes to speed it up with the help of $38 million from an unexpected windfall from the state’s legal set aside for San Francisco, the Educational Revenue Augmentation Fund.

While SFMTA is set to obtain a portion of that total $415 million extra funding, a “set-aside” legally squared away for the agency, the decision about what exactly it will spend it on is expected to be subject to a pitched debate between Mayor London Breed and the Board of Supervisors. Breed supports Muni spending its portion of the set-aside on new trains.

Thursday, Walton said of that windfall money, “I’m not nearly ready to say where it should go.”

And though many of Walton’s followers on Facebook praised him for his work with SFMTA, at least one commenter sounded words of caution, asking Walton to beware of being “jobbed” by the transportation agency.

Walton said he will be vigilant.

“I think that we have somebody in office who’s going to be fighting to make sure MTA and city leadership honors their word,” he told the Examiner, “or there’s some things we’re prepared to do to make sure that happens.”

This story has been updated to include comments from SFMTA director Ed Reiskin.

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