Third Street rail line gains speed

New technology gives trains green lights, cuts commute on route opening Jan. 13

Ten minutes have been shaved off the travel time aboard the soon-to-open Third Street Light Rail extension, officials announced Wednesday.

Fiber optic technology will give trains on the new Muni line priority at some intersections with signal controls, allowing the trains to keep moving. The new technology is not used by other trains in The City. The lack of such a system is often cited as the cause of backups on lines such as the N, J, K and M.

The entire trip will now take 22 minutes instead of the originally calculated 32 minutes, said Nathaniel Ford, executive director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

The $648 million, 5.1-mile Third Street light-rail project marks the transit agency’s largest undertaking in decades. The Muni-operated system will feature 18 stations along Third Street, going from Bayshore Boulevard in Vistacion Valley to the Caltrain Depot at Fourth and King streets. The project, which has been delayed for a year and a half, opens to the public free of charge starting Jan. 13, when service will be provided only on weekends and holidays. Full paid service is slated to begin on April 7.

The new technology will allow the trains moving down Third Street to send messages to a mechanical traffic controller. If a train is approaching an intersection where the light is about to turn yellow, that signal would remain green slightly longer to accommodate the oncoming train, project manager Drew Howard said.

The light-rail system is being launched at a time when Muni is under pressure to provide faster service and increase the number of riders. The transit agency is facing a multiyear, multimillion-dollar budget shortfall. Ford has been called upon to increase the number of riders to prevent a financial crisis. Increased efficiency is expected to encourage more riders to take public transit, officials say.

Ford estimates that 50,000 people will pay $1.50 to ride the Third Street system each day once it becomes operational next year.

Last month, officials unveiled details of a $1.4 billion Third Street extension known as the Central Subway project. It’s designed to provide continuous rail service from Visitacion Valley to Chinatown and reduce the commute by half. The new Muni rail line, which will extend from Fourth and King streets through SoMa up into Chinatown, is expected to be online by 2016. Officials say 90,000 people a day will ride the Central Subway by 2030.

mcarroll@examiner.comBay Area NewsLocal

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