Muni’s Absymal Breakdown Rate: One Reason SF Needs a Vehicle License Fee

Revenue Miles Between Total Vehicle Failures. Compared with nine other transit agencies, Muni’s light-rail breakdown rate was an abysmal outlier. Image: City Controller’s Office

Muni vehicles break down far more frequently than in other cities, after years of the system being starved of the necessary funding to adequately maintain its fleet of trains and buses.

Muni’s heavily-used light rail vehicles, which serve 50 million riders every year, have a failure rate that’s off the charts. According to a City Controller audit [PDF] of Muni’s performance compared to that of nine similar transit agencies, Muni metro LRVs broke down every 617 miles on average. At the other end of the spectrum, light rail vehicles in San Jose go 47,630 miles between breakdowns, which means that Muni vehicles break down 77 times as often. The second worst-ranked city after SF was Pittsburgh, at 3,923 miles.

Crowds seen at West Portal Station during this week’s Muni “sickout.” Photo: SFMTA

“Our light-rail seems eggshell-fragile compared to everyone else’s,” said Malcolm Henicke, a member of the SFMTA Board of Directors, who seemed surprised by the data and asked Muni management for answers at a board meeting on Tuesday.

SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin said that many of the LRV component systems haven’t undergone overdue mid-life overhauls, which “we would be able to do with the vehicle license fee revenues.” The VLF increase is one ballot measure proposed by the Mayor’s 2030 Transportation Task Force, along with a $500 million general obligation bond. These measures would fund upgrades for the transportation network, including Muni rehabs and vehicle replacements.

But Mayor Ed Lee announced this week that he would abandon his support for the measure to restore the VLF to historic levels on this November’s ballot — even though the measure would raise $1 billion over 15 years. The SF Transit Riders Union called the mayor’s announcement yet another “refusal to prioritize Muni at every turn” and a “complete failure of leadership.”

In a separate audit presented by the City Controller a year ago, Muni delays were estimated to cost the economy at least $50 million a year.

Many Muni vehicles need to be overhauled, but the agency also needs to replace much of its aging fleet, both of which the ballot measures would fund. AnsaldoBreda, the manufacturer of Muni’s notoriously breakdown-prone fleet of 151 trains, has already been disqualified from Muni’s next fleet purchase. Pending full funding, those trains are expected to roll out in the coming years.

Reiskin blamed the design of the Breda trains for the metro system’s high breakdown rate, as Muni has been plagued with a host of mechanical issues and design flaws since the vehicles went into operation in 1996. He noted that there are 220 moving parts within the steps and doors alone.

“It’s a very high-failure design,” said Reiskin.

Granted, the SFMTA has put more money into catching up on its transit vehicle and infrastructure maintenance in recent years, but the results haven’t quite manifested themselves in any noticeable improvements to the Muni-riding experience. And while a highly-touted component of that effort is the ongoing replacement of diesel-run buses with new hybrid buses, SF Weekly’s Joe Eskanazi reported in January that they, too, come with fundamental design flaws and a notoriously high breakdown rate. (Eskanazi has also covered Muni’s maintenance and management woes extensively.)

The breakdown rate of Muni’s diesel-engine buses was ranked third-poorest in the audit, roughly equivalent to Portland’s and better than Minneapolis and Seattle’s. Muni buses broke down about once every 3,000 miles on average, compared to nearly 8,000 in Sacramento and 20,000 in Denver.

Seattle was the only one other city analyzed in the audit that also runs electric trolley buses. SF actually beat Seattle in this category — Muni’s breakdown rate was just once every 1,700 miles, compared to Seattle at just over 700. Still, since both cities’ trolley buses are aging and in need of replacement, both systems see much worse reliability than any fleet of diesel buses and light-rail vehicles — except when it comes to Muni (again, its light rail vehicles at 617).

By the way, the VLF isn’t dead. Stay tuned for more coverage of developing efforts to continue the campaign to get it passed.

  • Jamison Wieser

    A major example to what @andrelot:disqus said. The LRVs were supposed to receive a mid-life overhaul, but much of the funding went into Third Street overruns.

    Something else contributing to the problems is a vehicle shortage. The existing rail fleet barely met demand before a sixth line was opened and without more vehicles the ones we have put in longer hours which increases the number of breakdowns that end up stalling the entire system.

    Most of those systems that had fewer breakdowns also put less milage on their vehicles. Many of those which do put more milage on their light-rail systems and have a higher average speed also have a lot of miles-long, grade-separated segments between stations where trains can run at much higher speeds. We only have the Twin Peaks tunnel and San Jose Avenue.

  • Jamison Wieser

    Unless you have to get technical, it’s easiest to just say “bus” to avoid confusion.

    Meanwhile “electric” implies the bus runs entirely off of batteries, like an electric car. That’s also a term we should save until Muni does have plug-in electric busses.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    religious conviction level-boarding must be low platform

    In one corner (SATAN’S): nearly every successful first world urban transit operator, all with higher per-capita ridership than Muni, vastly greater schedule adherence, vastly superior maintenance, and far lower operating costs.

    In the other (BABY JESUS’): Muni, America’s Finest Transportation Planning Professionals (“Failure is Our Profession”), Jamison Wieser, and a bunch of US streetcar foamers.

  • Indeed they are, but not as bad as the doors on the Boeings that preceded them.


    Your message would have more legs if you uploaded a kitten.

  • Interesting chart. Historic streetcars used to be much more reliable than the Bredas, I wonder what changed?

  • Yes, we need to put the “Light” back into LRT. The cars used by our region’s “heavy” commuter rail system weigh less than the Bredas.

  • Jamison Wieser


    I am indeed part of the secret plot by the mole people, aliens and evil greedy developers insistent on repeating Muni’s past mistakes by pointing out an example, of a passed mistake, in a comment, that SFMTA should not repeat, and has a straightforward solution, that has already been that would be so politically unpalatable it’s opponents would insist on repeating the same bad mistakes.

    You keep that tin-foil hat on because the government is out for you!

  • Justin

    Forgot to put the word “way” between “only” and “it.” Sometimes that happens when I’m typing

  • coolbabybookworm

    That’s a lose-lose proposition. I’d rather waste some money and still get some things done than let our streets and vehicles get worse. Are you really so anti-labor that the idea of paying people to build roads or drive LRVs is so off-putting? Much of the rolling stock would be replaced so it’s not really a matter of hiring new drivers. As for road workers and other infrastructure upgrades, that would be handled by DPW, which, as far as I’m aware, has done a pretty decent job delivering on Prop B projects. Funneling the money into a bad project is the most legitimate concern you’ve raised.

  • zippy_monster

    Probably the same thing that happened with the 60ft trolley coaches: they got old. Then the MTA got creative with the PCC refurbs so we got unreliable (and untested) doors, etc.

    One of the biggest reasons I’m reluctant to throw more money at the MTA as a maintenance solution is their history of idiotic moves (ex: sander hoses damaging subway infrastructure on the Bredas).

  • I’m pretty sure the streetcar foamers are on Satan’s side here. Also, we prefer to be called Foamite-Americans.

  • jonobate

    “I don’t know where you got your figures, but where’s the funding going to come from?”

    Same place as the funding for your plan to convert all of the flag stops to high platforms. There’s no funding identified for either of them, so that’s not a point in your favor.

    I don’t *have* any figures, which is why I want to see a study done, but converting the flag stops to high platforms will likely be more expensive than converting the high platforms to low platforms simply because there are far more flag stops (87) than there are high platforms (20 surface + 9 subway). If we leave the T-Third alone and use two separate fleets, you’d only need to convert 11 stops (2 surface + 9 subway) to low floor. (I’m not counting the MMX, which already has both high and low platforms.)

    Under my suggestion, we don’t need to do anything to the flag stops, because the low-floor vehicles give you 90+% of the benefits of level boarding without having to build any platforms. Some modern LRVs have floors just 7 inches above the road surface – imagine how easy that would be to board from street level. Include a deployable ramp on the trains, similar to the low-floor buses currently in use, and every stop is now ADA compliant.

    “It’s getting rid of the steps, not low-floor or high-floor specifically, that cuts procurement costs.”

    It’s not just that; low floor is cheaper because it’s the most common, which means more vendors and more competition. It also means that Muni could combine orders with other systems such as VTA or SacRT for bulk discounts.

    “You also didn’t qualify that “new” systems are being built low-floor.”

    Legacy systems are mostly being converted to low floor; most never built high platforms in the first place, so “conversion” just means buying new low-floor trains. Even when platform reconstruction is necessary, it usually proves cost effective to do (e.g. VTA).

    “Studies cost money and what would you really prefer: 1) study converting the Market Street subway to low-floor or 2) study a subway connector between West Portal and St. Francis Circle”

    Order of magnitude check! A project to convert the entire system to level boarding – whether high-floor or low-floor – would likely have a cost in nine figures. A study to determine which is the most cost effective of the two options would likely have a cost in the high six figures or low seven figures. Don’t you think it’s worth spending a relatively small amount of money to make sure we’re not wasting a much bigger amount of money?

    And why is a level-boarding study and a West Portal subway study mutually exclusive in your world? Why can’t we do both? In fact, it would be criminal *not* to do a level boarding study before constructing future subway stations, given that it would be expensive to change the platforms at a later date. Measure twice, cut once.

  • jonobate

    “We can’t even have a discussion on the merits of the idea without people picking up their pitchforks.”

    So you’re complaining that we can’t discuss the merits of different level boarding scenarios, but in your more recent comment, you’re also saying that studying the merits of different level boarding scenarios is a bad idea because it would cost money?

    Maybe if we had cost/benefit estimates of the various scenarios, we could have a more informed discussion.

  • Jamison Wieser

    What cities are converting their existing high-floor platforms to low-floor? You brought up VTA, but it didn’t have high-platform stations to begin with.

    Los Angeles isn’t stopping expansion to convert their high-platform light-rail stations to low-floor and their new lines are also high-platform. Maybe SFMTA can jointly order with them.

  • Jamison Wieser

    False equivalency: SFMTA has already made a decision to go with high-platform stations, all those Third-Street stations, the MXX, the new and existing subway stations. You keep making mention of tearing down the Third Street stations that were just built as high-floor platforms.

    My point, which you have proven, is that there is a straightforward, practical solution to level boarding, but it just wouldn’t fly politically.

    Have you seriously considered a level-boarding solution that does not include a bigger and more expensive project to convert, now two perfectly good subways to low-floor. You keep throwing up justifications for a major subway construction project, but do you really need money wasted on a study to learn the obvious: a project that involves rebuilding both the subway and surface stops/stations would be more expensive than a project involving only the non-accessible surface stops?

    Do you really believe that so many cities are demolishing their existing high-platform systems that SFMTA will not be able to find any companies able to manufacture high-platform trains?

  • Jamison Wieser

    Years ago we tried to get the SFMTA to consider low-floor service on the J-Church line. Except for the subway it doesn’t have a single high-platform station (just ramps), ridership and stop spacing is more in line with modern, low-floor streetcars. It would open up capacity in the subway and provide a new, high-capacity, accessible service, with level boarding.

    First roadblock – where it died – was that it would require a new outbound turn at Market & Church. The Duboce & Church rebuild would have been the opportunity and without even considering a change to J-Church service the head of Muni thought it would provide operational flexibility on the F-line. Back of the napkin for that was only $200,000-300,000 (they were working on the intersection trackway anyway) if it didn’t effect the subway at all.

    That was a funded project, but in the end and even without that they didn’t even have the money to replace the electrical box that caught fire shortly after the project was finished or rebuild the overhead wire so the northbound 22 could use the center lane and boarding island at at Duboce.

    I really don’t think you understand the costs and complexity involved in what you’re making sound very simple.

  • jonobate

    “Do you really need money wasted on a study to learn the obvious: a project that involves rebuilding both the subway and surface stops/stations would be more expensive than a project involving only the non-accessible surface stops?”

    That’s absolutely not obvious when there are 87 non-accessible surface stops to convert under your plan, and only 11 high platform surface/subway stops to convert under my plan, assuming we go with the scenario where we leave the T-Third with high platforms.

    To be absolutely clear, I’m not proposing converting all the non-accessible surface stops to low-level platforms. I’m proposing leaving them as curb stops, and converting only the 11 high-platform stops (9 subway stations + Stonestown + SFSU). Using a low-floor LRV means that all those curb stops now become accessible by default, in the same way that using a low-floor bus makes all the bus stops it services accessible by default, so we don’t need to build platforms everywhere.

    You could convert the curb stops to low-level platforms in future decades if you wanted to improve the boarding experience further, but it’s absolutely not required.

  • jonobate

    If those costs and complexities apply to my plan of converting 11 high platform stations to low platforms, those costs and complexities will apply several times over to your plan of converting 87 curb stops to high platforms.

    You continually fail to grasp that I’m *not* advocating building platforms at every single stop. You don’t need to do that if you have low floor vehicles.

  • jonobate

    The original platforms weren’t “high”, but they weren’t compatible with low floor trains, which is the point. They were reconstructed to be compatible.

    “From 1987 until September 2003, the system was served by a fleet of high-floor light rail vehicles built by Urban Transportation Development Corporation. In 2002, VTA introduced new low floor light rail vehicles by Kinki Sharyo into the fleet. The low floor vehicles initially operated only on the Tasman West line (Downtown Mountain View to I-880/Milpitas) because the vehicles’ floor height matched the platform height only at that line’s stations and was only able to provide level-boarding there. In 2003, after VTA reconstructed platforms along North First Street from the Japantown/Ayer stop northward (with wooden ramps provided for the leading car’s front door at all other stations), VTA replaced the entire fleet with low-floor light rail vehicles. […] Currently, all stations provide level boarding at all doors.”

    Los Angeles generally does not run light rail down narrow streets in mixed traffic; it’s closer to a heavy rail system in that regard, with separated ROW for the majority of the route. Muni mostly does, so there’s a much greater benefit to having low floor trains in SF than there is in LA.

  • Jamison Wieser

    Now your just being a dick: you’re suggesting to rebuild the subway from level boarding at one height to level boarding at another while leaving a large number of flag stops completely inaccessible.

    You are placing such value on re-building stations that already offer level, fully accessible boarding at a great expense over making more, ideally all, of the system fully accessible.

    You’re also implying that all stops should be retained. That’s one of the thing that puts a lot of wear and tear on the LRVs. They barely have a chance to accelerate before they have to stop again and a two-car train has a lot more mass than a bus or the PCC streetcars.

  • Jamison Wieser


    So the original VTA trains had high-platform, but with stairs at all the doors. Accessibility was provided by a ramp or elevator at the station. The station platforms were actually lower than the low-floor streetcars and had to be raised up. The temporary wooden ramps mentioned were only a few inches, but were necessary because the platforms were too low and the ramps were to several feet too high.

    Third Street was rebuilt with a separated right-of-way and high-platform stations for the majority of the T-line’s route. The N-Judah already has a good part of it’s route in a dedicated right of way.

  • Tom

    I agree that lighter streetcars would be a good idea. The Breda cars are noisy and heavy. When one passes, the street rumbles! But – – – who is going to pay for the new ones???

    Go to Google Images and type in Strasbourg (France) Trams. Take a look. I was there a few years ago and when I saw the trams I wondered why SF could not have had a similar design. The cars are built to low to the ground that it is only one step up to get inside!

    Closer to home, Portland, OR, has a similar design. Take a look!


SFMTA Board Approves Contract for New Fleet of Muni Metro Trains

The purchase of Muni’s next metro train fleet took a major step forward today as the SFMTA Board of Directors unanimously approved a manufacturing contract with Siemens. Muni officials lauded the design of the new trains as far superior to the current, abysmally breakdown-prone fleet of light-rail vehicles, which were built by AnsaldoBreda. The fleet […]

Will Muni’s Largest Service Increase in Decades Have Staying Power?

Muni is making major service improvements and shoring up the basics of running buses on schedule, and this time, officials say, the improvements will stick. “This is long term, focused and systematic,” Muni Operations Director John Haley told reporters last week, calling upcoming “Muni Forward” upgrades the largest increase in service since the Market Street subway […]

In Struggle for Accessible Muni Metro Stops, Parking Comes First

The accessible outbound platform at Church and 30th Streets. Photo: Michael Rhodes "Stops are too close together on Judah Street" goes the common refrain among many of Muni’s N-Judah riders — at least the able-bodied ones. Barely 300 feet of relatively flat terrain separates two stops in an especially egregious case. But for Tatiana Kostanian, […]

Muni’s Next Train Fleet: Breda Disqualified From Another Contract

As Muni seeks its next-generation fleet of light-rail vehicles to serve the metro system, the manufacturer of its current, notoriously unreliable train cars has been barred from competing for a new contract. Italy-based AnsaldoBreda, which produced the LRVs that Muni riders use today, was the only one of four prospective manufacturers which didn’t meet the new […]