The SFMTA is seeking an outside vendor to reverse-engineer some of the outdated parts on Muni’s light rail vehicles. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Plan to reverse-engineer outdated Muni train parts is on track

The guts of Muni trains are being replaced faster than ever — from brakes to door parts — leading to increased reliability, transit officials say.

Now, those officials hope to expand upon that effort.

The “Vendor Managed Inventory” system allows the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to hire an outside vendor to not only manage its parts inventory, but seek out engineering whizzes across the country to reverse-engineer train parts that are no longer made.

The Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee on Wednesday approved a $25.5 million program extension, which was previously a pilot, after it also gained approval from the SFMTA Board of Directors last week.

Under the pilot, the SFMTA entered into a contract with Alstom Transportation for $39 million. Alstom managed just 16 percent of light rail vehicle parts for an initial two-year period, which was later extended by three years. That will go up to 25 percent, pending approval.

John Haley, director of transit at the SFMTA, said the agency needs to outsource some of the acquisition of its train parts because most of the 149 light rail vehicles in Muni’s fleet were manufactured by AnsaldoBreda, which no longer exists. That posed a challenge for the SFMTA, as manufacturers of Breda train parts also are now defunct.

That required Muni to make its own replacement parts.

This unique position — a vendor manager — works hand in hand with Muni engineers to reverse-engineer old parts and seek out firms nationwide that can manufacture them, like a part for a brake or an “air compressor” that helps open train doors.

SFMTA records show 26 unique parts have been designed so far, and manufactured en masse.

“We have a fleet engineer who three quarters of his time is reverse engineering the parts,” Haley said.

The vendor also aids in keeping track of parts inventory, which has helped increase availability of trains.

Before this plan, 110 trains out of the fleet were available on a daily basis, according to the SFMTA. After the plan was implemented, 120 cars became available each day.

The mean distance before trains broke down used to be 2,964 miles, but after the vendor mangement program was instituted, that distance hit 5,150 miles.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Supervisor Katy Tang praised the trains’ increased reliability.

“That’s a good thing,” she said.

The vendor-managed inventory plan also added to SFMTA’s annual costs. The usage of spare parts doubled from 2011 to 2015 — a jump of $21 million annually in 2011 on spare train parts to $42 million in 2015, according to SFMTA documents.

Haley said the increased spending means the trains are actually getting the repairs they need.

“Historically, the vehicles have been undermaintained,” Haley told the San Francisco Examiner. “We’re simply doing a lot more maintenance.”

The City’s Budget Legislative Analyst recommended that instead of renewing the program for three years at a cost of more than $40 million, the renewal should be reduced to two — which would bring the cost down to $25.5 million.

The committee supported that recommendation and sent the proposal to the full board for approval.

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