Supes Approve $30 Million Contract for Muni Train Control System

3552447195_42aa6b9655.jpg Flickr photo: dylan yee
The Board of Supervisors today approved a five-year, $30 million umbrella purchasing agreement between the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and Thales Transport & Security, Inc. for Advanced Train Control System (ATCS) "improvement services and upgrades." The ATCS system controls the speed, location, and routing of Muni's light rail vehicles when they're underground between Embarcadero and West Portal stations. The MTA says the upgrades are necessary to keep the ATCS in working order for the coming decades.

"This umbrella purchasing agreement will help us in our ongoing effort to reinvest in all the infrastructure that keeps our system running," said MTA spokesperson Judson True. "The Advanced Train Control System is one of the most important components of the entire Muni operation and we're thankful that the Board of Supervisors understood the importance of investing in it to keep it in a good state of repair."

True said Muni hasn't always made the necessary investments in maintaining the system since it went live in 1998, six years after Muni and the Public Utilities Commission signed off on the original contract in 1992. An ATCS Asset Assessment presented by Thales a year ago also found broad evidence that the system wasn't being maintained properly by MTA technicians, leading to some components degrading faster than they otherwise would.

Under the "Human Factors" section of the report, for instance, Thales wrote, "(At Wayside) No evidence of Preventative Maintenance being performed. Working knowledge of (ATCS) wayside equipment is incomplete, and with no knowledge of how the (ATCS) equipment operates as a system."

Thales made a series of recommendations, including purchasing a series of equipment upgrades necessary to keep the system in working order and up-to-date, ranging from upgrading ATCS software from OS2 to Windows, to transitioning "to full ATCS and [decommissioning] residual elements of pre-ATCS signal system."

The ATCS system has allowed Muni to greatly increase the number of trains it runs through its tunnels, from fewer than 30 per hour to 60. When the system was originally activated in 1998, however, it brought on a massive meltdown, bringing trains to a crawl through the Market Street tunnel. That installation was performed by Alcaltel Canada, Inc., which Thales acquired in 2007.

Because the ATCS system is proprietary, trade-secret property of Thales (by virtue of owning Alcatel,) the MTA had little choice but to stay with Thales for the maintenance purchasing contract, even if it wanted to enter into a competitive bidding process. The MTA does have some recourse to keep costs down, however, since its board will have oversight over each purchase prior to executing the purchasing agreement, and the agency plans to conduct an independent cost analysis of each purchase order before signing the agreement.

The MTA's True said the contract is not about maintaining old equipment, but about keeping the system modern for the foreseeable future. "I think that this purchasing agreement allows us to at least move in the direction of always keeping the technology up-to-date. So, it really will be a decision decades down the line of whether to replace the train control system, if there is a new one. The real goal is to keep it in a good state of repair."

Replacing the full system and dumping Thales is not financially realistic in the near term: to do so would cost $100 to $200 million, an MTA report (PDF) to the Board of Supervisors says, and "would require extended periods of early subway shutdowns to provide adequate test windows."

There was little question on the Board of Supervisors that Muni needs to take better care of the ATCS, but it was one of the sobering realities of the public transit business that a 1992 agreement with Alcatel leaves little room for negotiation 17 years later.