Getting Serious about the Market Street Subway

New York subway train

As has been pointed out before, the Muni level of the Market Street subway is currently operating at less than half its peak-period passenger-carrying capacity. That’s because 20 years ago, instead of coupling the one and two-car trains operating along the Avenues (namely the K,L,M,J, N trains) into longer trains suitable for subway operation, the Muni gave up on the coupling. So now it operates one and two car trains in the subway as well as on the Avenues, therefore sending many fewer LRV’s through the tunnel than needed during peak commute periods.

In an attempt to counteract the resulting overcrowding, the SFMTA tries to push as many of its short “trains” into and through the subway as possible. This has not worked.

For one thing, it appears that the large number of one and two car trains operating in the subway is making the system more vulnerable to system breakdowns than necessary. Getting the trains started on time and in the right order, keeping them on schedule and coping with unexpected operating problems all seem less manageable than in the past. As peak-period riders of any of the five lines can attest, service in the subway continues to be subject to an irritatingly large number of stops and delays.

For another, the subway’s peak period carrying-capacity remains far below the capacity of the subway and far below demand. Because of overcrowding it takes more time for harried riders to push themselves on and off of jammed trains, thereby causing further delays.

Paris subway train

Operating four and five cars in the subway at say 2 minute headways instead of the MTA’s one and two car units at 1.42 minute headways would double the subway’s peak carrying capacity. Unfortunately, the inadequate length of the subway trains is seldom mentioned. Instead, the MTA continues to focus on what appear to be peripheral factors. Updating and adding to the Automatic Train Control System, and reducing the excessive number of trains that now reverse direction at the Embarcadero Station would help, but alone would not make up for the inadequate Muni Metro carrying capacity or fully address the aforementioned operating problems.

Toronto subway train

The J-Line appears to be another example of focusing on the wrong set of problems. J-Line service has been particularly hard hit by problems in the subway. The MTA’s response has been to propose a number of changes to the surface operation along Church Street. Why? Have conditions along Church Street gotten so bad that they are causing the major delays and horrendous service gaps now being experienced by J-Line riders? What percentage of the problem from the subway and what from Church Street? This question has been neither asked nor answered.

If San Francisco is ever to receive the full benefits of its multi-billion dollar Muni Metro System the MTA must bear down on the most pressing problems in need of correction. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Identify what would be most effective and do that. Forget the window dressing.

  2. Upgrade the ATCS to the extent necessary and straighten out the terminals as necessary, but don’t expect these changes to solve the problem.

  3. Ready the incoming Siemens cars and the Muni’s LRV maintenance crews for extensive in-service coupling.

  4. Make the coupling operation safer and less error-prone by automating it.

  5. Start using longer trains in the subway. Some couplings can start immediately.

  6. Bring back the line supervisors, especially at terminals. They are clearly needed.

  7. Place a high priority on eliminating the inbound surface obstacles that interfere with efficient coupling, particularly west and south of the West Portal.

The Muni Metro System….operating at full capacity…would bring immense benefits to Muni riders and to San Francisco. The task therefore warrants attention and a high priority.

Identify what would be most effective and do that. Forget the window dressing.