S.F. Muni system still operating like it’s 1979

While most people consider technology from the 1970s obsolete, Muni is relying on it to move hundreds of thousands of people around on public transit each day.

Muni, which has struggled to offer reliable service for years, is still using the initial set of computers installed in its central-control facility in 1979. Since then, service delivery has doubled, and employees have kept the facility humming by ransacking scrapped hardware parts from other transit agencies.

“It’s archaic,” said Carter Rohan, Muni’s senior director of planning and development. “The staff is unbelievable in keeping it running.”

Each day, Muni carries 700,000 passengers on 1,000 buses, trains and trolleys, with 43 central-control employees working behind the scenes to keep the operation running smoothly — almost an impossible task with computers closer in age to the fax machine than the iPod.

“We are one of the most intense systems for passenger load,” said Kenneth McDonald, Muni’s chief operating officer. “But we are one of the most outdated.”

The outmoded central-control system was one of the main factors that caused systemwide delays during the opening of the T-Third metro line in April, officials said. Metro-train passengers, including those waiting for J-Church, K-Ingleside, L-Taraval, M-Ocean View and N-Judah trains, were stranded on platforms across The City for up to 50 minutes. Muni received hundreds of service complaints during the first few months of the new line.

Officials said a report on the central-control facility’s condition was produced in 1999, and at that time, staff concluded it could be renovated for $17 million. The issue has sat on the shelf since then, however, and Muni is now estimating a full-scale upgrade to cost about $290 million. Muni has so far identified about $15 million for the project, Rohan said.

“We can’t find anything on the record for why they haven’t moved on it,” McDonald said, regarding repairs.

When compared with BART, McDonald said Muni’s technology is about two to three generations behind. While BART has more than two dozen satellite stations, Muni, which carries twice as many daily passengers as BART, has 11, he said. Muni, in fact, leases its central-control facility from BART under a long-term land agreement, he added.

In addition, staff morale at the facility is also at an all-time low. It is too cramped for the 43 people who work there — one-third the number of employees needed to properly run a high-quality system in The City, Rohan said.

arocha@examiner.com

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