Supervisors Demand Muni Cut Switchbacksmuni train

San Francisco supervisors Carmen Chu and John Avalos were not pleased with the explanations transit authorities gave in January for the increasing practice of leaving riders stranded along the L-Taraval, N-Judah, M-Oceanview and K-Ingleside streetcar lines. The Board of Supervisors requested that Muni officials account for the increasing number of switchback, or turnaround maneuvers, on the light rail system in the past year.

According to the SF Examiner, more than 370 streetcars in 2010 were turned around while in route to their intended destinations and did not finish their runs, dumping their passengers on the street short of where they wanted to go. Most of the switchbacks occurred with little or no warning during peak commuter hours.

As a result of switchback maneuvers, hundreds of riders are dropped off at various stops along the K, L, M or N lines, waiting sometimes for more than 45 minutes for another streetcar to come along to finish the route.

On Jan. 10, three officials from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) appeared before Chu and Avalos at City Hall.

John J. Haley, the SFMTA's director of transit, provided a slide show presentation with charts and graphs. He explained to the supervisors that streetcar switchbacks are a service management technique used as a way to deal with difficulties, such as derailments and technical malfunctions.

Muni operators turn the streetcars around in an effort to make up time when there are delays. Turning trains around midstream in route redistributes streetcars, helping to alleviate gaps in service. Muni insists its options are limited.

Haley noted that Muni operators must deal not only with technical problems within the light rail system, but also traffic or other delays above ground when they travel outside underground train tunnels. Haley said vehicle traffic and other obstacles along the streetcar lines are beyond Muni's control.

Chu, who represents the Sunset District, and Avalos, who represents constituents of the Ocean View, Lake Merced, Merced Heights and Ingleside districts, both say they are committed to improving transportation services and that they found Haley's explanation as unacceptable.

Haley insisted the situation is getting better. He stated that in September Muni worked to redesigned systems and procedures to help eliminate delays. Yet, Chu questioned Haley's charts and graphs.

"How do we understand, according to these numbers you show us, that service is getting better?" she asked.

The report presented only four months of data, from December 2009 to September 2010. Graph bars and percentage rates were vague and did little to impress the supervisors. When Haley failed to answer questions intended to clarify the situation, Avalos got up from his chair and turned toward Haley, insisting he respond.

Chu remained calm and helped ease a tense situation when Avalos got frustrated with Haley's answers.

Soon, Jim Kelly, senior operations manager of central control for the SFMTA, took over. Kelly noted that use of the switchback/turnaround was a policy only when a streetcar along the route was within five minutes away, available to pick up waiting passengers.

Chu and Avalos remained skeptical and found the switchback policy counterproductive and a poor misuse of transit time.

"Transit first is an empty phrase, especially for citizens in the outer areas of the City," Avalos said.

Greg Dewar has been keeping record of the switchbacks in his web blog "The N-Judah Chronicles." Dewar considered Haley's poorly-prepared presentation as "another Muni tactic to reinforce the facade that everything is OK."

Dewar and others who testified said that being "dumped off late at night" with little or no word of the switchback occurring shows a lack of respect for passenger safety.

Kelly then mentioned that Muni is considering a pilot program with express shuttles running along the streetcar lines during commute hours. Both Avalos and Chu said they will continue in their quest to hold Muni accountable for providing reliable transit service.

Jonathan Farrell is a freelance writer. Feedback:

March 2011