For the more than 140,000 people who ride the Muni Metro subway system daily, major delays are a regular part of life.
That’s because just one train malfunction can stall the entire network, causing other trains get stuck while the broken train is turned around on the track.
One fix may be to build more places for trains to turn around. But Muni officials say it’s a fix that could take years to accomplish.
The lack of turnarounds in the Muni Metro subway system is a major design flaw, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Director of Transit Julie Kirschbaum told the SFMTA Board of Directors last month.
Some subways, like Union Station in Los Angeles or Grand Central Station in New York, have “multiple simultaneous turnbacks,” Kirschbaum said. Essentially, trains run on multiple tracks, and if one breaks down and needs to be turned back, others can still whiz by.
Other subways, like those in Paris, Berlin, or Washington D.C., run train routes in branches which then converge into a central “trunk.” There are myriad turnbacks off the main line at the route’s branches, “providing space and time” for many trains to turn at once, Kirschbaum said.
“We have neither of those designs,” she told the board.
Instead, Muni turns its trains around within the central trunk itself on tracks downtown that extend to West Portal station.
“That’s the cause of the bottleneck,” Kirschbaum said. “The subway itself was not designed with train turning movements in mind.”
She said building “pocket tracks” outside the subway at strategic points would help malfunctioning trains hop out of the way without impacting service. A pocket track is a short section of track between two main lines, allowing a train to be pushed off a main line quickly.
Harrison and Bryant streets are potential places for a pocket track, Kirschbaum said.
“I believe the long-term solution will be trying to replicate more of this design where we turn fewer trains in the subway” itself, she said, but instead on these pocket tracks.
But that fix is at least three to seven years away, Kirschbaum said.
Building more trackways could also further eliminate bottlenecks in the system. The City is in the earliest stages of planning where its next subways should go.
When those subways are built, they should incorporate the design lessons of the past, Kirschbaum said.
BART actually designed the Muni Metro subway when they designed their own tunnels downtown, said Rick Laubscher, a local transit historian and president of Market Street Railway, a nonprofit and museum.
The design flaw stems from hemming and hawing on Muni’s behalf, he said.
“It’s important to note that at the time, Muni had not decided how they would operate the tunnels,” Laubscher said. “BART was flying blind.”
Muni hadn’t decided if they’d go with high platforms, or low platforms, or if they’d use their old-style streetcars or design new state-of-the-art light rail vehicles.
Laubchser said making tough design decisions was “all a function of not having any money.”
When the riding public opted not to give enough cash to Muni, the agency had to make compromises to the system, which opened on February 18, 1980, according to SFMTA.
At its start, Muni Metro was so hobbled that it was implemented in phases, with the K-Ingleside running first, followed by the L-Taraval and then the M-Ocean View, all of which operated only on weekdays. It was only in 1982 that the subway system finally began running on weekends.
That historic lack of investment limited Muni Metro’s design, and the system limps on with the consequences today.
“Julie Kirschbaum inherited a challenging situation,” Laubscher said.
And now San Franciscans are depending on her to dig them out of it.