New Muni trains delivered with defective doors

Rider caught in door, dragged onto tracks and hospitalized due to lack of vital safety mechanism

At least some of Muni’s newest light rail vehicles — part of its more than $1.1 billion future train fleet — appear to have been delivered with doors that clamp down and lock on objects and people, documents obtained by the San Francisco Examiner reveal.

That door defect may have seriously injured a Muni rider last week.

Last Friday afternoon at roughly 2 p.m., a woman described as “elderly” tried to board an outbound N-Judah train when the doors clamped down on her hand.

The N-Judah train departed the station, dragging the woman with it.

At first, she kept up by trotting alongside. People on the platform rushed to the train and banged on the doors. They screamed to the operator “stop!” Station staff tried to free her, but the train kept moving, dragging the woman fifteen feet across the platform. Eventually the woman’s hand was freed from the door, but in what was described by one witness as a “jerking motion” she then hit the train, bounced onto the platform, and fell to the tracks.

Will Hayworth, a San Francisco-based software engineer, was on the platform and witnessed the incident.

They called the experience “harrowing.”

“A couple of us had seen what had happened and were really shaken up,” Hayworth said. A Muni agent who witnessed the incident “was really quite shaken, she was crying.”

The woman who fell, who Hayworth described as roughly 5-feet tall and sporting salt-and-pepper gray hair, was transported to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital in “serious condition,” according to the San Francisco Fire Department. Hayworth said she had a “giant gash” on her forehead, and appeared unconscious as she lay on the tracks.

This account of the incident was confirmed through a combination of sources, including one insider who viewed surveillance video, internal Muni reports provided to the Examiner and Hayworth’s description. But it wasn’t isolated.

There have been at least four incidents since September where Muni riders have found themselves bodily trapped between Muni train doors, which have been known to “lock” closed on objects, and at least two of those incidents resulted in injuries, according to internal San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency reports obtained by the Examiner.

SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose said the new trains passed multiple safety tests, meet national safety standards and were certified by the California Public Utilities Commission.

“The doors on the new trains are safe,” he said in a statement.

Seven out of roughly 60 new Muni trains were outfitted with a new “door enhancement” that adds a second sensitive edge to sense objects in the doorway, Rose said.

Rose acknowledged tests from 2017 obtained by the Examiner show the doors were known to malfunction, but argued that was were during the “test phase” designed to find such defects. He added, “the current doors passed several tests to ensure safety and compliance.”

Documents provided by SFMTA show the train doors passed subsequent safety tests.

Yet despite SFMTA’s assurances, incidents in Muni’s own logs show passengers continued to get caught in train doors in recent months.

On September 19 2018, Muni’s internal report system shows a passenger got a hand caught in a train door at Powell station on the J-Church line. No injury was logged.

On December 25, 2018, a person was caught in the door of a Muni train on the N-Judah line at Duboce and Church Streets. That person was “caught in door way & fell,” according to the log. SFMTA was unable to detail the passenger’s injuries from that incident.

The incidents also arrive amid SFMTA’s effort to fast-track the purchase of 151 new light rail vehicles constructed by Siemens USA, the same train cars that feature the door issue. Just last week, three days before the woman was dragged by a Siemens-built train car at Embarcadero station, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors gave SFMTA money for that “fast track” plan, which also has the backing of Mayor London Breed.

The Mayor’s Office did not return requests for comment.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who is also the chair of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority Board, said no transportation staff had informed him of any mechanical door issues.

“I am horrified to hear this,” he said by phone. “I am going to literally hang up the phone and find out what the hell is going on.”

Peskin was unclear what the next steps should be, but the board has the power of the purse to compel SFMTA to improve train construction.

Last week, sitting in a little-attended meeting at City Hall, the supervisors voted in their capacity as the San Francisco County Transportation Authority Board to grant SFMTA $62 million to purchase the Siemens vehicles and retire some of its old fleet, which was notorious for doors that broke down and slowed the system.

For this reason, the doors were a major focus of the design team and Muni’s new trains have simpler door systems that are expected to break down less, SFMTA staff has said previously. Fewer breakdowns should translate into faster train service.

“Purchasing new Muni vehicles and ensuring they are properly maintained, is arguably the single most important investment we can make to improve transit service for the public,” SFMTA staff wrote in a presentation given to the Board of Supervisors on April 9.

Many constituencies also view the new trains as imperative to assuring the public has working Muni service.

Rachel Hyden, executive director of the San Francisco Transit Riders advocacy group, said speed is necessary, but Muni must make sure the trains are also safe.

“Plenty of automatic doors in systems all over the world are able to stop closing, or to re-open, when there’s an obstacle,” Hyden said. “SFMTA must get this right before trains are put in service, regardless of the pressure to get more trains on the tracks.”

But the trains SFMTA staff pushed to purchase had door issues going back to at least 2017, documents reveal.

In an August 25, 2017 email to Siemens project manager Viorel Aninoiu, SFMTA staff rejected a “Door Function Test Report” from Siemens due to “the incomplete status of the test, and the omission of the proper door obstruction detection criteria.” Siemens had “not mentioned” an issue SFMTA discovered in their own tests, staff wrote.

That issue? “The door obstruction detection does not work as expected,” staff wrote. Indeed, when staff tested both single doors and double doors on the new light rail vehicles in a 1,000-cycle door test, at least three train cars “fully closed and locked” onto objects placed in the doorway. Staff tested both a quarter-inch by 3-inch “flat obstacle” and a three-eighth inch round obstacle in the doors, and in multiple cases the door’s “sensitive edge feature,” which is designed to detect objects in the doorway “failed to detect the obstacle.”

In 2017 the responsibility of light rail vehicle procurement was overseen chiefly by John Haley, then-director of transit. He retired late last year after allegations surfaced that he harassed and groped his assistant. The current SFMTA director of transit is Julie Kirschbaum, who last week asked the Board of Supervisors to approve funding for new train purchases.

Two Muni door incidents occurred during Kirschbaum’s time as director of transit.

Roger Marenco, president of the Transportation Workers Union Local 250-A, said the new trains’ mechanical door breakdowns are well known to the 2,000 Muni operators he represents.

“We brought this up to management, but as you can see nothing has been done about the (door’s) sensitive edges,” he said, which are the components that detect objects in the door.

Marenco worries operators will be unfairly blamed for door incidents. “This is a serious health and safety issue for the general public, and for operators in disciplinary actions,” he said.

SFMTA has gone back to the drawing board on several issues related to the new light rail vehicles: They are also redesigning the interior due to rider complaints, and an issue with couplers discovered this week forced the agency to run the new light rail vehicles as single-cars only.

joe@sfexaminer.com

 

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