Absenteeism and Maintence Concerns Could Spell Trouble for Muni

lrv_derailment_small.jpgPhoto: Octoferret

In an annual performance review of San Francisco’s Muni transit service presented at the final MTA Board Meeting of 2009 yesterday, several troubling indicators cast a shadow on the agency’s efforts to improve its reputation and service performance.

Bonnie Nelson of Nelson Nygaard reported that unscheduled absenteeism among MTA operators reached 14.4 percent in the middle of 2009, that vacancy rates for maintenance shot
up to 16.2 percent from 5.6 percent at the end of 2008, and that vehicle
breakdowns were on the rise, particularly among the Breda Light Rail Vehicles (LRVs) that are the backbone of the Muni metro system. Furthermore the MTA’s aggregate on-time arrival percentage had dipped after recent increases to 73 percent, far short of the 85 percent target.

"We want to reduce absenteeism and we want to make sure our vehicles
don’t break down," asserted MTA Spokesperson Judson True. "We’re making that significant capital investment to
keep those light rail vehicles in good condition."

Board Director Malcolm Heinicke, however, was concerned that cutbacks in maintenance and a rise in absenteeism, coupled with the 10 percent spike in operating costs in 2008, was leading to a grim scenario.

"There was a dramatic… worsening in the mean distance between LRV failures," he said, addressing Ms Nelson. "You suggested… that it may be fewer mechanics…. I also want to make sure this is not an issue that we have deferred capital rehabilitation and that sort of thing too long, that this is now coming home to roost and we’re beginning to see a trend."

MTA Director of Capital Programs Carter Rohan, who was sitting in for absent MTA CEO Nathaniel Ford, said the agency was doing everything it could on the capital side to improve MTA’s rolling stock and that the federal stimulus funds would buffet the agency against capital degradation, albeit temporarily.

"What we’re doing in the areas that we can, particularly on the capital side, is stepping up the capital programs. We’ve brought the LRV renovation program to a quick closure," said Rohan. "We’re moving very quickly on the repairs to other rolling pieces of our fleet. I think you see this year a lot more activity on the capital side, which will help us stem some of that trend."

Board Director James McCray asked pointedly how the worsening statistics from 2008 would stack up against the expected budget shortfall in 2010 and whether they should be even more alarmed about meeting growth targets.

"It’s going to be a particularly tough operating budget in the coming up two-year cycle," replied MTA CFO Sonali Bose, though she didn’t offer specifics. Choosing her words carefully, Bose added that the agency would "see more stress on the operating side…. You will see the impact of the reduction of the operating budget on some of the performance criteria when we talk about the budget process."

As to how significant those impacts will be, True could only respond, "I’m going to check with Operations and get back you with."

  • zsolt

    “Absenteeism and Maintence Concerns Could Spell Trouble for Muni”

    “MTA Director of Capital Programs Carter Rohan, who was sitting in for ***absent*** MTA CEO Nathaniel Ford”


    Muni operators need to start live in the real world. If you don’t show up for work, you’re out of a job real soon.

  • sfsmskater

    Motorcoaches are the backbone of Muni!

  • Muni Metro, the backbone? Yeah right, they are more like the broken neck of the agency.

    As for Nat Ford, uh huh, absent aye? He’s showing that he’s a proud example of a city employee.

  • What a hilarious and ironic day to publish this crisply written article!

    There was some “stress on the operating side” of Muni Metro this morning; it took our inbound N-Judah a full 30 minutes to go from 9th & Irving to Van Ness Station. Our operator drove approximately 3mph the entire way, yelling on the intercom for passengers to step behind the yellow line, and passing up waiting passengers at Stanyan and Cole, claiming over the PA that we were “at capacity” (the second car definitely wasn’t) and complaining about stoppages but never explaining any technical problems.

    At Van Ness, we were stopped for another 10 minutes with no explanation, except the operator telling us there was a “problem with the train’s stairs.” (Which she’d neglected to raise until most of the way through the tunnel between Church & Van Ness.)

    A few minutes later, she asked anyone with a cell phone to “call 311 and ask for some help, because central command isn’t responding.” A bunch of us did, and the operators at 311 were nice but a little confused and basically unable to do anything but thank us for the call. A few minutes after that, the operator herself came to our back car and motioned for a passenger to pull the emergency door opening lever. As we exited, she explained she was letting us out because “central command told me there are just too many emergencies happening at once.”

    There were trains stacked up behind us going inbound, and as we left Van Ness station they started making announcements about “inbound delays at Van Ness,” and some other outbound delays too.

    Communication between central command, operators and riders has never been Muni’s forte, but I’m prepared for things to get pretty tense as we increasingly “see the impact of the reduction of the operating budget on some of the performance criteria.”

    I’m someone who understands and has a great deal of sympathy for the system, and I was thisclose to pushing the emergency talk button and letting loose with a string of expletives.

  • tommy

    he said trolleys are the backbone of the muni METRO system, people.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    So when exactly do the morons responsible for “designing” and specifying Muni’s heaviest-in-the-world, two-decades-obsolete, high-platform, less-reliable-when-new-than-the-awful-old-Boeings-they-replaced “light” rail vehicles get to serve the long prison sentences they richly deserve rather than continuing to hold senior Muni planner positions, shill the Central Subway (eg Peter Strauss of the MTA), and continue to suck down huge consulting contracts (ie pretty much all of Muni’s contractor mafia, especially BAH and PBQD)?

    Actions are supposed to have consequences when Muni’s admittedly hostile and unmotivated front-line workforce calls in AWOL, but there are no consequences at all when their white collar criminal counterparts waste billions of dollars and condemn us to inappropriate, poorly-designed and unreliable equipment for decades to come.

    Next stop! Central Subway!

  • Erik

    How the hell can the head of an organization be absent at its annual performance review? Assuming he’s not in the hospital or something, shouldn’t this literally be more important than everything else on his schedule?

  • They need Chief Gascon to teach them how to figure out the biggest abusers of absenteeism among operators, and just plan (start training replacements) to fire the worst 10% or so …. hopefully, the ones that aren’t the worst will get the message that we ain’t screwin’ around no more when we’re looking at a $500 million budget deficit next fiscal year and residents are tired of getting squeezed to pay for MUNI’s inefficiencies.

  • I forget to state the obvious … I believe the whole Chief Gascon’s implementation of Compstat is to help target the problem areas using data … if MUNI can’t figure out statistics, call the Chief of Police who apparently understands data analysis in addition to cleaning up the Tenderloin.

  • jackmayhofferr

    How is it that NYC can run a subway system 10 – 20 x the size of muni and not have nearly as many issues? I have been on trains that stop 3x in the embarcadero station before letting anyone off? At the station — open the F*n doors.

    Muni needs to be over hauled from the top down. The CEO was absent. Nat Ford should be fired. Muni is getting worse, not better under his lead.

  • This is no surprise. Continue to loot Muni and allow slipshod management and oh noes! the system falls apart.

    People are getting pissed, and when Muni management engages in double talk and Mayor “Football Bat” talks about massive cuts as an improvement, it’s clear nothing will change unless we change how Muni is run. Absenteeism is unacceptable and it’s time to tell the unions to shape the fuck up, or ship out. Same goes to bloated management with perks but who are unaccountable. And finally this bullshit way we appoint MTA commissioners is a failure and needs changes. Why the HELL am I asked to vote on civil rights, but apparently told that I and everyone else in SF is apparently too stupid to have a say and demand the people’s railway run for the benefit of us, not overpaid hacks.

  • One of my former co-workers was on that N-Judah that was stuck today. It turned out the steps broke.

    Everyone knows, but it seems that it doesn’t get into the SFMTA Board of Director’s minds, the agency is hitting new lows every single day.

    It is almost a daily ritual to read my twitter feeds and notice at least one metro delay show-up. 311 for Muni is a practical insult for people who need to complain about something so serious that it can’t be addressed tomorrow or be looked at hours later (i.e. running stop signs, driving without headlights).

    The public must REVOLT!

    And you wondered why I made my “20 demands to fix Muni” on my blog, the public is fed-up!

  • Nick

    Does anyone know what year it became part of the civic culture to complain about MUNI? It couldn’t have always been mismanged and late. There must have been a time when the transist system in this city ran like it does it other cities.

    I remember Mayor Brown proclaiming he could fix MUNI in 100 days (circa 1995?). Then later when the press came after him for MUNI being so slow, he challenged an LRV to a footrace from Castro Street to the Embarcadero Station during a highly publicized morning commute. The LRV won, but just barely

  • the greasybear

    Griping about Muni is a longstanding San Francisco treat–think decades. That said, Muni really is unacceptably unreliable. Not so the similar surface/subway rail and bus systems in cities like Boston, LA, and Philadelphia–why can’t Muni do better?

  • bennyinsf

    I agree with AKIT. We need to revolt against MUNI! We’ve been forced to accept mediocrity for way too long. How is it that one agency has been able to hold hundreds of thousands of daily commuters hostage? MUNI is bad for the economy of SF (think of how much accumulated lost time and productivity can be blamed on MUNI because it can’t move people efficiently and on time to work). It’s also bad for our collective psyche — we need peace of mind knowing that we can depend upon our mass transit system to actually work MOST of the time without the constant frustration and uncertainty we encounter everyday with this system.


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