SFMTA Steadily Painting Itself into the Proverbial Corner

It appears that the MTA may unwittingly be putting itself between a rock and a hard place. Here are the limits under which it is attempting to operate its Muni Metro subway:

Limit One…Trains per Hour: The Muni Metro subway can handle only so many peak direction trains an hour. A few years ago the MTA tried running 43 trains an hour through the subway. This was an unmitigated disaster. Now the talk is about 30 trains an hour, but that’s with a brand new signalization system that is at least $600 million and two decades away. In the mean time, in view of Muni’s continuing difficulty hold to schedules, 24 trains an hour should be regarded as the absolute upper limit.

Limit Two…Train Length: The subway was designed to handle three car trains and, with a little ingenuity, even four. But it was recognized that running three and four car surface trains along the avenues would be both controversial and wasteful. So the question became, how to hold to 24 subway trains an hour while making the trains long enough to meet subway ridership demand.

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The designer of the original Muni Metro system was the Louis T Klauder Company of Philadelphia (now called LTK). At the time Klauder was highly regarded as perhaps the most experienced rail system designer in North America. To be able to feed Muni’s five separate lines (J, K, L, M and N lines) into the subway without causing massive tie ups under Market Street, Klauder laid out the system and the stations to accommodate three and four car trains in the subway and one and two car trains on surface lines by coupling the short trains to form longer trains at the subway portals. And that was the way the system was operated from the time it went on line in 1981 until the mid 1990’s. Unfortunately, with the designer long gone it was decided at the MTA to eliminate coupling problems (mostly caused by defects in the Muni’s first generation of Light Rail Vehicles). Under this myopic plan the one and two car Avenue trains continued on into the subway without the coupling. The trouble with operating one and two car trains in the subway was and is that it unnecessarily reduces rider carrying-capacity. In other words the shorter trains predictably required more trains, resulting in service that got worse rather than better.

Because of COVID and its aftermath, Muni ridership is now significantly lower than it was. For this reason the Muni Metro subway is not currently overtaxed, making now an excellent time to examine, test-out and evaluate alternative solutions to the problem.

Limit Three…Rider Convenience: However instead of honoring this third limit the MTA seems determined to again head down the wrong path. To avoid both the coupling and too many trains in the subway the MTA is now proposing to end the direct downtown LRV service that tens of thousands of daily J, K and L line riders have enjoyed for almost half a century. (Good luck with that one)

A much better approach would be to eliminate the shuttles between the West Portal and the Embarcadero Station, that were added by the MTA in the mid-1990’s. The trouble with the shuttles is that they reduce by six the number of trains per peak hour available to the 5 original Muni Metro lines. With the shuttles gone, former Muni Chief Scheduler Angelo Figone recommends that the length of the subway M Line trains be increased to three cars by operating three car trains to State College and then sending one of the three the rest of the way to the Balboa Park M line terminal. Upon its return to State College the single-car train would join to a two-car train and proceed as a three-car train inbound back into the subway.

This process is successfully done elsewhere and should be quite manageable. A try should be made see how effectively the incoming Siemans light rail vehicles (LRV’s) could be coupled and uncoupled in revenue service. If for some reason the MTA couldn’t make the coupling work it would not be difficult to re-institute the three car shuttle.

To further reduce the number of trains but not the number of LRV’s, inbound J cars could be joined to inbound N cars at the Duboce Portal. This would put the total number of peak period trains operating in the subway at a manageable 23 per hour.

Feeding five surface lines into a single set of subway tracks is not an easy proposition. But properly operated as originally designed, the Market Street subway can do the job.

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