Tumlin apologizes after Muni subway suffers five breakdowns in three hours

Agency working on fixes for aging train control system and cars

Five major Muni train malfunctions within three hours turned subway travel into a nightmare Monday night, prompting complaints from transit riders and an apology from Muni’s new director.

The incidents included two N-Judah trains sliding into the mouth of a tunnel incorrectly, grinding to a halt; a J-Church train’s propulsion failing at the Embarcadero; sparks in the subway between Powell and Civic Center stations, and an errant emergency door-handle pulled stalling a K-Ingleside at Church Street.

All five snarled transit for an estimated 70,000 evening subway riders.

Those five technical snafus led to the kind of meltdown that capped off the career of Ed Reiskin, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s former chief, leading him to announce his resignation in April last year at the urging of Mayor London Breed.

But now there’s a new head of Muni, Jeffrey Tumlin. Addressing the enormity of last night’s meltdown, he publicly apologized to San Francisco.

“On top of 5 separate breakdowns in 3 hours, we failed to communicate with our passengers the extent and cause of the problems. I apologize,” Tumlin wrote on Twitter Monday night.

The Muni breakdowns boil down to two key infrastructure failings, Tumlin wrote: an aging, decrepit automatic train control system — essentially the systemwide computer that pilots the trains inside the subway — and aging, decrepit trains, built by manufacturer Breda. Those trains are known to break down often, and are a leading factor in subway delays.

Both problems have solutions in sight.

SFMTA plans to replace the automatic train control system with a new “communications-based” train control system, which will use wifi and cellular connections to track and communicate with every train in service.

The current automatic train control system relies on wires that Muni trains have to attach to when entering subway tunnels — if a train operator doesn’t nail the precise speed needed for a train’s connector to “catch” the overhead wire it can lead to stalled trains or damage to the overhead wires. The computers that form the backbone of that system are old and sit in often waterlogged rooms in subway stations.

Design of the new communications-based train control system is ongoing, with construction anticipated in fall 2021, with expected completion in 2027, according to SFMTA project documents.

Replacing SFMTA’s aging Muni trains is a bit more tricky, however.

SFMTA has ordered 260 new train cars — called “light rail vehicles” — from manufacturer Siemens. Of those ordered, 65 are available for service and in Muni’s fleet.

But those new trains hit a hiccup: The door sensors were faulty, and captured a woman’s hand, leading the train to drag her to the tracks at Embarcadero Station early last year. The trains’ shear-pins that hold different rail cars together also tended to break, leading those cars to drift or hit one another, although this happened at Muni’s yards.

These malfunctions prompted the Board of Supervisors to halt $62 million in funding to accelerate the purchase of the remaining trains in the 260-train order from Siemens. The Board of Supervisors, acting in their capacity as board members of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, heard arguments Tuesday from Muni that the train problems have been fixed and the money should be released.

Still, the supervisors had some concerns that the issue with Muni car shear-pins had not been fixed to their satisfaction, and needed a higher degree of testing before they could approve the $62 million in a future meeting.

“I think before we go into the contract we want to know this is going to be fixed and has been fixed, I think this is my hesitation,” said Supervisor Sandra Fewer, speaking to Muni staff in the meeting. “It is an assurance I want before I am able to cast a vote for $60 million to purchase these things. Thank you very much.”

The transportation authority board took no vote Tuesday, and the matter of approving funds to fast-track purchase of new trains is expected to return in the coming months.


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