Transit Watchers Question Need to Close Subway

Is it "Operationally Lazy" to Shut Down Market Street Tunnel During Train Testing?

One of San Francisco's new Siemens' LRVs. Photo: SFMTA
One of San Francisco's new Siemens' LRVs. Photo: SFMTA

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) infuriated transit advocates when it announced on Saturday that it will close the entire Muni subway, from Embarcadero to West Portal, every weekend and after 9:30 p.m. during the week, for the next four or five weeks. The closures, which start this weekend, are part of a testing program for its new light-rail vehicles (LRV).

“This is just unacceptable,” said Rachel Hyden, Executive Director of the San Francisco Transit Riders, about the short notice. Many advocates, including Hyden, also question the necessity of the closures in the first place.

First the details from the SFMTA announcement:

The testing requires the Muni subway to close early on weeknights and over the weekends for four weeks. Testing will begin with the start of service on Saturday, July 22 (approximately 7 a.m.) and continue until the end of regular service on Sunday, Aug. 20 (approximately 1 a.m., Monday).

Replacement buses will be provided. Here’s a map of the closures.

Map from SFMTA's website.
Map from SFMTA’s website.

Tom Radulovich, Executive Director of the advocacy group Livable City and a former BART Director with over 20 years experience, in an email to Streetsblog, also had questions. “Muni has fewer options than BART does–it has no test track, and it only uses computer control in the Market Street subway. However closing down the entire subway every weekday evening and every weekend for over a month to test only five trains does seem like an extraordinary imposition on riders. Testing ought to take place overnight during the regular maintenance window.”

At today’s SFMTA board meeting, Director Ed Reiskin described the closures as part of an “exciting point in the development in our new vehicles … we are in the final stage of rigorous testing and acceptance process. We’re in the home stretch, which is exciting.” But he said this final stage requires closing the subway. “The most complicated part is testing with the automated system in the subway–in order to fully test the system to make sure everyone can talk with each other, we will need to shut down the subway for that testing to take place.”

Streetsblog reached out to SFMTA to try and find out exactly why testing can’t be done during normal maintenance hours, from 1 to 5 a.m. “One testing requirement is to run the train for 1,000 hours to really ‘kick the tires’ and make sure they are ready for service. We have to follow and meet several California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) guidelines/requirements before these trains can go into service,” wrote Erica Kato, a spokesperson for SFMTA. “A four-hour closure window wouldn’t be feasible to getting these much-needed trains on the streets and in-service.”

She also wrote that “… this testing window also allows us an opportunity to complete upgrades to the emergency ‘blue light’ phone consoles in the subway tunnel…”

Acknowledging that it would obviously take longer to make the 1,000-hour threshold, Streetsblog asked Kato to explain exactly why it wasn’t “feasible” to do the testing in four-hour increments. Streetsblog also asked if at least some of the 1,000-hours required by the CPUC can be done outside the tunnel and/or during revenue operations, but outside of peak hours, when there’s space for test trains. SFMTA had not replied at the time of this post, but Streetsblog will update accordingly.

UPDATE: SFMTA confirms that the 1,000 hours do not have to be done entirely in the tunnel. A spokesman also wrote that the four-hour maintenance window translates to only two hours of actual testing time once the agency gets done with system sweeps required to shut down the subway. He added that some of the testing of the new trains, such as emergency braking and hard accelerations, can only be done with the system closed down.

“Muni needs to test and certify their new Siemens light rail vehicles to be sure. But their impact to revenue service–shutting down whole weekends and evenings after 9:30 p.m.–is extreme and outside of industry best practices.” said Dennis Lytton, a Bay Area transportation writer and consultant with significant rail transit operations and policy experience. “Other peer transit properties–such as Washington, D.C. Metrorail, Los Angeles Metro Rail, and the New York City Subway to name a few–are currently testing new trains and find ways to not so thoroughly reduce revenue service and impact the communities they serve.”

Meanwhile Reiskin, in response to a question from SFMTA Chairwoman Cheryl Brinkman, said this testing would not be necessary every time the agency accepted more new LRVs, beyond this first batch of five. “Once the control system is safety certified we don’t need to certify new vehicles.”

But Lytton remained unconvinced that suspending revenue service is necessary even for this initial batch. “It honestly strikes me as just operationally lazy.”

“We’re really frustrated. It feels like they planned this in a vacuum,” said Hyden. “This shouldn’t be a thing–SFMTA should expend every and any option to avoid this kind of impact … they think of the rider last.”

  • chris

    Is this new testing program part of the reason why Muni cancelled the contract to replace the tracks in the tunnel between the Castro and West Portal? Certainly looks suspicious that this new closure coincides with what would have been the early stage of the track replacement project.

  • david vartanoff

    Lazy, nah. A middle finger to riders, yes. Cheating riders of evening service during the fair weather months of summer is just dumb. The testing should be done overnight during normal closed times.

  • 🚇 Why not test them out in the completed but unused section of the Central Subway, thereby testing both?

  • mx

    Thank you. There would be rioting in the streets if the state announced with one week’s notice that it was closing 101 for a month’s worth of nights and weekends for anything but the most obvious glaring emergency structural failure, yet when it’s transit, SFMTA just says “lol whatever” and shuts it down. I’d like to see an actual schedule for the testing hours and how they plan to use them.

    We already went through this with the emergency telephone project, which had something like six months worth of closures just for blue light telephones and radios. And they’re still not done with the telephone upgrades? Six months of closures in 2015 wasn’t somehow enough for emergency telephones?

    The problem is that they keep doing these closures for their convenience, because they can’t be bothered to come up with a better way, and then they’re completely out of rider goodwill when they actually need to do closures for important long-term maintenance, like rail replacement. Nobody is opposed to maintenance, but if SFMTA is going to cry wolf about this all the time, how can they be trusted when it comes to work that really is necessary?

    It is obvious this agency does not care about riders and views subway service as an optional extra it can provide, poorly at that, when it feels like it.

  • jonobate

    BART are getting their 1000 hrs of runtime on mainline tracks, during business hours. Why can’t Muni do the same?

    https://www.bart.gov/news/articles/2017/news20170718-0

  • The weekend closures of the entire subway system is the worst part about this. Think about this: There are three weekends with home games at AT&T Park, and Muni has NO plan to solve this dilemma of getting thousands of fans inbound with a subway shutdown. They think passengers will have a good time riding bus substitution to get to Embarcadero station and transfer to a shuttle or T train to the park? No.

    And yeah, I’m also angry the agency is giving a week’s notice.

  • p_chazz

    Attendance at ATT Park has been rather sparse in recent weeks. Perhaps It’s a blessing in disguise.

  • Rainforester

    They sure do think of the rider last!

    Just look at the disastrous “MUNI Forward” program, which cuts service!

  • Jeffrey Baker

    They had one game that wasn’t sold out. Attendance per game this season is 99.9% as high as last season according to official MLB stats and third-highest in the majors.

  • Tracks and wires haven’t been installed yet. I’m sure the T line will be shut down when testing begins on the CS, most likely coinciding with Giants and Warriors events.

  • Yeah, 6 months for emergency phones to be installed, but those shiny, new display signs in the stations remain unlit.

  • And closures for that project as well.

  • p_chazz

    Tickets sold does not equate to seats filled. I think about half the people saunter in around the third inning and another half leave before the seventh…

  • Jeffrey Baker

    That’ll happen when you’re the worst team in baseball. But I still think their games present a significant transportation challenge.

  • spijim

    The Phillies are the worst team in baseball. In any case, the T will still run to Embarcadero. It’s the rest of the tunnel that’s closed.

  • It really doesn’t matter about attendance, people will still go on the metro system to get to the park. Bus substitution is terrible and each bus has far less capacity than a one or two car metro vehicle. Adding Giants fans will make it even worse. Muni needs to plan to run special ballpark express buses from Church & Duboce and West Portal to drop everyone at Embarcadero Station to catch the trains running to the ballpark.

  • Bruce

    While an annoyance, it’s only for a month. Let’s not make a mountain out of a molehill.

  • Jeepers, and people think I’m salty.

  • mx

    Muni has more in the way of automatic train control in the subway, and it’s a notoriously unreliable mess of an automatic train control system, so I can understand why there’s a need to test it out of revenue service. I wouldn’t want to be on a train stopped at a station hoping the software on a brand new completely untested train really stops before it slams into me. But I’ve yet to see any explanation why this extensive of a shutdown is necessary.

    Beyond that, even if this is absolutely 100% necessary, their communications are atrocious. A week’s notice. A completely casual attitude as if they don’t care. There’s been no public outreach, no elected officials taking responsibility, no statement about the alternatives they considered and rejected, no acknowledgement they are inconveniencing actual people here.

  • No snark intended on my part. I’m merely stating the obvious.

  • It has nothing to do with annoyance. It’s about a last-minute announcement to Muni riders and no reasonable alternatives considered. It’s also a slap in the face considering fares just jumped yet again. But, in typical Bay Area fashion, if it doesn’t directly impact you then it’s not an issue.

  • Exactly. Community outreach is pathetic.