Cameron Beach Grills MTA Staff on Slow Speeds in Twin Peaks Tunnel

3227699111_f87c91c3de.jpgWest Portal station, at the western end of the Twin Peaks tunnel. Flickr photo: Matt Roe

MTA Director Cameron Beach expressed his frustration today about slowed Muni vehicles that have nothing to do with traffic congestion or frequent bus stops: for almost as long as he’s been a director, Beach complained, trains in the Twin Peaks tunnel between Castro and West Portal stations have been operating well below their historical speed of 50 miles per hour.

During a major rehabilitation of the overhead wires in the 2.27-mile tunnel in 2006, the MTA discovered that the tracks in the tunnel were in such poor shape that trains traveling at their usual top speeds were in increased danger of derailment. A track rehabilitation program early last year was intended to fix the problem, but trains are still running at slower speeds as the MTA works to certify that the tracks are safe.

At an MTA Board committee meeting today, Beach asked for an update on when trains will start passing through the tunnel at higher speeds again.

The track rehabilitation "never did raise them, that’s the issue," said Beach, who rides through the tunnel frequently to get downtown. "It’s been almost three years now since we’ve had 50 mile per hour operation in that tunnel."

That prompted an update from MTA Executive Director Nat Ford, who summarized the history of the "slow speed order" in the tunnel, but wasn’t able to present a timeline for raising the speeds.

"There’s been some debate about what is normal speed in the tunnel," said Ford. "There was the historic speed, and the degradation of the track that forced a number of slow speeds in sections. Then the work that we did about two or three years ago to resolve that issue, and the track geometry work that was done to help certify the speed in that tunnel."

The MTA’s Safety and Operations divisions are still working to certify that the tracks are suitable for higher speeds again, Ford told Beach. Speeds were set for several different segments of the tunnel, and some speeds were brought up incrementally, but trains still operate at much less than their one-time top speed of 50 miles per hour, explained MTA Director of Capital Programs Carter Rohan.

Trains currently travel through most of the tunnel at 35 miles per hour. For a short stretch between Castro station and a segment of the tunnel known as the Eureka curve, vehicles are limited to 20 miles per hour. Today, it takes about seven minutes to travel through the tunnel without any congestion from other light rail vehicles, though much longer waits are not uncommon as vehicles bunch up near West Portal station.

Potential congestion at West Portal could negate some of the benefits of higher speeds in the tunnel, said Ford. "If we did go up to the maximum speed that was somewhere in history on that track, do we end up creating a logjam at West Portal going outbound because the trains would be speeding up and catching up with each other?"

That question and safety concerns are still being worked out by MTA engineers, said David Hill, the MTA’s interim director of transit. The MTA has had two consultants look at the issue, and is reviewing the information the consultants provided them. A derailment in the tunnel last month has been a further setback, but Hill said his staff is still working to determine whether trains will ever be safe to travel at higher speeds again. "After we’re complete with our analysis, and the analysis from the consultants, then we’ll be coming back to meet with Mr. Ford to make a determination at that time."

Beach was clearly not entirely satisfied with the response.

"What I’m hearing now is there are a number of studies being analyzed with no target for an answer or closure on the issue. To say that I’m frustrated with that is an understatement," said Beach. "I would like staff to come back not only to this committee but the full board with a comprehensive report on where you’re at and a schedule of finishing this task."

Beach will get his wish – for a schedule, if not for faster speeds – at the January 12 meeting of the MTA Board’s Policy and Governance Committee.

"We’ll get to the bottom of this and get this resolved," said Ford.

  • Finally, someone at the SFMTA is looking into this serious problem with the metro. It seems to run slower outbound than inbound, but still, both ways are really slow.

  • Nick

    BART trains enter each station going about 50mph. Why can’t MUNI at least allow 2 trains in the same station at once (it’s only 10mph anyway).

    I understand there was a major collision so they are upholding policy over pragmatism. Why then do they allow 3 trains to be on the same block of West Portal as they approach the entrance to the station? It’s madness.

  • not trying to diminish the speed issue, here, but i am curious how much time would be saved on an average, without congestion? i know next to nothing about the line. my back of the envelope calcs say we’d save up to 2.5 minutes each way through the tunnel — that’s pretty significant.

    also, it seems weird to me that the MTA is grilling…the MTA? i apparently need a lesson in civics, and the way SF’s various transit agencies are set up, who reports to who, roles, where the public gets to chime in, etc.

  • Paul

    Even if speeds are raised, the real issue is that we need another subway tunnel. After the central subway this should be the city’s next goal.

  • Miles

    @Peter, Beach is on the MTA Board of Directors, the Mayor-appointed governing body that Ford et al report to. Beach is the retired COO of Sacramento Regional Transit and well respected in the industry nationally for his knowledge of operations. His questioning on this has essentially unmasked the incompetence of Muni staff when it comes to rail matters. Since the day they converted from the old surface streetcar system (including the Twin Peaks Tunnel used back then by streetcars like the ones now on the F-line) to the “modern” Muni Metro subway, incorporating the tunnel, rail performance at Muni has been on a steady downward curve (if not spiral). Given the money that has been thrown at rerailing and rewiring the Twin Peaks Tunnel, there is no conceivable reason that a competent group of managers should not have that tunnel operating at 50 mph by now. Beach is calling them on it. Good for him.

  • Cheese

    “If we did go up to the maximum speed that was somewhere in history on that track, do we end up creating a logjam at West Portal going outbound because the trains would be speeding up and catching up with each other?”

    Answer: NO! Increased speeds do not increase congestion. You wouldn’t catch up to the train in front of you, because that train was moving faster as well.

  • Alex

    How quickly we forget about the most recent derailment.

  • @Peter, those couple minutes saved in the tunnel add up to mean every train could make an additional run (a full trip from one end of the line to the other) each day.

    That means more frequent service for us and more capacity for Muni without any (or margin) extra labor cost and vehicle hours. That in turn makes Muni a more attractive alternative to car use and that in turn brings in more fare revenue.

  • Alex

    @Jamison the slow speeds in the TP tunnel are not nearly as much of a detriment to faster service as the chronic delays at West Portal. I’ve lost count of how many times it’s taken 10-15 minutes to get through West Portal in either direction. Problems include but are not limited to:

    – ATCS or switching problems
    – Lack of double berthing
    – Waiting for a replacement driver to become available
    – Waiting for automobile or pedestrian traffic

    Simply allowing double berthing outbound would speed up things significantly. Before the MTA freaked out and banned it, the delays were about 5-6 minutes less on average. Alas, they can’t double berth in auto mode. For whatever reason there also seems to be fairly regular problems getting the trains to do an ATCS entry. Letting the driver dick around for 5+ minutes with the train stuck at the inbound platform prevents tighter headways.

    However, even if every other problem were solved, the West Portal intersection is inherently problematic because of the number of auto, LRV, and pedestrian crossings. Something needs to be done. Pretty much anything would be an improvement. I like the idea of making the intersection right turn only, and some of the side streets one way. Otherwise a pedestrian bridge (or tunnel), proper traffic lights for the automobiles (that are coordinated with the train signals) would help immensely.

    Improving the speeds in the TP tunnel is likely not low hanging fruit as evidenced by the recent derailment. The stretch of track between Castro and Church is even worse (I’m surprised more people don’t lose their dentures).

  • Karl

    It is pretty irrelevant whether the trains run 40 or 50 through the tunnel when they lose minutes each getting in and out of the tunnel at West Portal. In particular outbound. It amazes me that anyone can agonize over that question all the while the trains sit at the platform for three minutes just to leave the station OB. That cars are still allowed on West Portal Ave. and Ulloa is a joke. Consider this: A train sitting at West Portal for two minutes potentially delays the followers for the same amount. I bet Muni loses hours each day just at that stupid place.

  • Plans to replace the current ATCS computer system running the tunnel are coming up soon and that’s another piece of improving efficiency. The focus here was on the speed in the tunnel.

  • Anonymous

    A signalized intersection with transit priority should fix most of the issues. And there is zero reason not to ban cars from the two central lanes of West Portal Ave.