Valentine’s Muni Malfunction Underscores Lack of Interagency Cooperation

BART meet Muni, Muni meet BART. You two should talk.

An overcrowded train at Civic Center Station.  New train or old train or whatever train--the operator's primary job in the tunnel is to make sure it is safe to proceed. Photo: RobVSFsFlickr
An overcrowded train at Civic Center Station. New train or old train or whatever train--the operator's primary job in the tunnel is to make sure it is safe to proceed. Photo: RobVSFsFlickr

A switch fault Wednesday left thousands of Muni customers delayed and peeved.

And I was one of them.

Around 3 p.m. yesterday I left my home in Oakland by BART to go to the University of San Francisco campus, north of the Panhandle, to finish an interview with firefighter Michael Crehan.

I needed to bike around later, so I brought my folding bike. The fastest and easiest way to get to my meeting was to change at Embarcadero, ride the N-Judah to Cole Valley, and then bike across the Panhandle.

I got as far as Embarcadero. As soon as I got to the Muni platform there, it was clear from the overcrowding and chatter that something was wrong.

Online alerts, social media, and conventional news coverage eventually explained what was going on: a Muni track switch failed between Van Ness and Church, effectively cutting off the N-Judah and J-Church from the subway tunnel for much of the day.

“Slow moving” was a bit of an understatement. It took 30 minutes to get to Church Street (the trip only takes ten minutes normally).

That said, switches fail. And as SFMTA spokeswoman Erica Kato wrote in an email to Streetsblog, it seems as if Muni did its best to get information “ambassadors” onto its platforms and to make announcements to keep riders abreast (and shame on me for not checking for Muni alerts).

But it’s almost as if the Bay Area’s two biggest transit operators are unaware there are two subway systems under Market Street and that many people depend on both of them. This is not the first time this problem has been pointed out.

If the operator of my BART train had announced that the N-Judah and J-Church were cut off from the subway tunnel, I could have easily stayed on BART to Civic Center and ridden the Wiggle to my appointment. Or I could have gotten off at Powell and taken a bus. Instead, it wasn’t until I had already tagged into Muni (and lugged my folded bike up from BART and back down to the Muni platform) that I heard or saw anything about delays.

Bottom line is Muni’s Valentine’s Day meltdown didn’t need to cost me so much time on an M-Ocean View, crawling painfully through the tunnel to Church Street, where Muni was having passengers disembark and go up to street level to catch N and J trains.

No doubt I wasn’t the only one who had their afternoon screwed up by Muni’s track problems and the failure to communicate successfully with BART.

I emailed Muni’s communications office and asked: “Did Muni contact BART to tell them what was going on so they could notify passengers making connections?”

“Yes, we did,” replied Kato.

But BART spokesman Jim Allison said he “…spoke to the on-duty Operations Control Center (OCC) manager. They are the individuals who are responsible for train traffic… He was on duty yesterday at the time of the Muni delays and he says his record, the OCC log, does not show that Muni contacted BART.”

“Muni’s poor track record when it comes to communicating with riders about service issues also makes us suspect they didn’t pass an alert on to BART in a timely manner or at all,” wrote Rachel Hyden, Executive Director of the San Francisco Transit Riders and former Communications and Brand Manager for the Muni Forward Program. “This issue is symptomatic of a much larger problem; Bay Area transit agencies have poor coordination of schedules, service, fares, and communication.”

So I called and emailed SFMTA’s communications office again and asked how they contacted BART. Then I got this reply via email from Kato:

“The overhead announcements were made through the PA system which would have been heard by all Muni/BART patrons in the shared stations. We did not, however, request mutual aid from BART’s control center.”

Allison added that BART doesn’t typically notify Muni of problems either unless “…there’s a MAJOR delay, such as no train traffic through the Transbay tube.”

Again, shame on me, for not checking for Muni alerts, especially as a reporter who already knows the two agencies don’t have integrated communications, customer service, etc. But they should, at least when it comes to the Market Street transfer stations. This is clearly something the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the transit agencies themselves need to work on. Announcements should have been made by BART warning people of the mess they’d encounter if they transferred to the Muni subway.

For that matter, with better interagency cooperation, couldn’t BART have temporarily honored Muni passes and helped move Muni customers around the delays? “Though Clipper has brought them closer together in terms of a single form of fare payment across multiple agencies, we really need to see more seamless operations to deliver reliable and usable service across the region,” said Hyden.

Fortunately, Crehan, once I texted him about the Muni delay, biked over to Church and Duboce to meet me and we were able to complete the interview. But if Crehan and I can communicate delay information successfully, why can’t BART and Muni?

  • Please…Muni can’t get it’s crap together to inform its own riders about serious delays or potential emergencies. You really expect Muni to alert its riders if BART has a meltdown on its system? And vice versa? After sitting at Castro inbound for 20 minutes I got off and walked to Duboce Park to pick up the N. The electronic sign suggested “take alternate route.” Now what does that mean? A bus? Another train? Which train? Which bus?

    That’s just communication flaws. The design/route flaw is that there are no buses that run down Market St. between Castro and the Embarcadero. The only option is the F line which I can tell you personally from years of dealing with Muni meltdowns that it sucks. Plain and simple. There are really no viable options other than taking a crosstown bus and transferring to another bus line.

    It’s just pathetic.

  • City Resident

    Thanks for pointing out what really should be obvious, the importance of communication. Regardless of our job, every one of us is a consumer at some point and we all appreciate being informed of delays or disruptions. Too often, Muni LRV and bus operators fail to inform passengers of delays. From this rider’s perspective, it seems as if too many operators wait for instructions from central control before advising of delays. Basic courtesy and common sense too often seems abandoned and this practice may present ADA concerns.

    Recently, a 38R bus I was traveling on stopped at Geary and Divisadero. Multiple traffic light cycles passed and minutes went by. Most passengers gradually got off but others, possibly with mobility or other impairments, waited on board. The bus operator made no announcement and when asked why said she was awaiting word from central control if the bus would be taken out of service. Simply conveying this morsel of information would have informed passengers that it may be best to get off and get on another bus.

  • The communication system on the train seldom works as well. Imagine if there was a real emergency, like a fire, quake or attack. Even if the driver knew what to do most of the time you can’t hear or understand them because the equipment doesn’t work properly.

  • mx

    Exactly. As another example, during Wednesday’s meltdown, I knew from that there were over a dozen trains stacked up OB between Forest Hill and West Portal and anybody on my train was going to be stuck in the tunnel for a very long time if they stayed on. While we’d all prefer that situation not exist at all, if it somehow must, a customer-centric approach would be to communicate that to everyone (by announcements, not secret websites known to transit geeks) so people can make an informed decision as to how much they might enjoy being packed in a train studying the walls of the Twin Peaks Tunnel before they’re stuck.

  • Carlos Goldstein

    Each agency operates in its own vacuum. Golden Gate Transit never knows anything about traffic in SF. Muni reroutes but GGT doesn’t know until we get there. The classic is Golden Gate Ferry changed the schedule between Christmas and New Year but didn’t tell the Bus Division, which has connecting buses, from the SMART Train. The bus and ferry are the same agency.

  • And workers just stand around, eyes down at their cell phones, doing nothing worth their bloated pensions.

  • Or, running the Castro Shuttle (which really runs to 22nd/Taraval, although all riders have to get off at WP, regardless of whether they want to ride to 22nd Ave.). Tourists and residents ask me all the time…where does this shuttle go?

  • david vartanoff

    and, if Muni actually cared about transport, a Supervisor would have been sent to hand throw the switch in question allowing slightly slower throughput, but getting riders where they needed to go.


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, […]

Are Muni Service Woes and Fare Hikes Pushing People to Bikes?

Many San Francisco bicyclists got their start by apparently taking this sign’s message to heart. Flickr photo: mattymatt Could rounds of Muni service cuts and fare hikes push more people to start cycling in San Francisco? The MTA, which operates Muni, doesn’t have data on the phenomenon, but anecdotally, it’s already happening. For Christopher Janson, […]

Church and Duboce Project to Revamp Major Transit and Bike Corridor

The thousands of daily travelers converging at the crowded Church and Duboce transit and bicycle junction can look forward to a host of streetscape improvements to make it safer and more inviting in the next couple of years. The Duboce Muni portal, converted from a street-level railway decades ago, has remained one of the city’s hairiest junctures […]