Editorial: Keep the Combo J Church/K Ingleside Train

SFMTA has temporarily combined the two lines to help deal with the Twin Peaks closure, but why are the J and K separate to begin with?

From the cab view of a KJ combo train heading into Glen Park (that's a test train ahead in the station). Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
From the cab view of a KJ combo train heading into Glen Park (that's a test train ahead in the station). Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

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I lived in Ingleside, near Ocean Avenue, for a year and a half. When I lived there, I was a regular K Ingleside train rider. On occasion, I needed to get from Ocean and Fairfield to Glen Park or Noe Valley. The only way to get there by rail was to ride the K to Balboa Park and then transfer either to BART or the J Church to continue my journey. Often, my K train would pull into Balboa Park just in time to watch a J leave without me. I’ve waited as much as twenty minutes at Balboa to make the transfer.

And every time it came up I wondered: why do the J and the K turn around at Balboa and head back downtown the way they came, rather than continuing on each other’s alignments? Wouldn’t the service be more useful if, even if they had to pause for a few minutes at Balboa to maintain schedules, the two lines were combined?

SFMTA's map of the KJ during the Twin Peaks closure shows a different way of thinking about Balboa Park operations.
SFMTA’s map of the KJ during the Twin Peaks closure shows a different way of thinking about Balboa Park operations.

Enter Muni’s Twin Peaks summer tunnel closure. To help make it easier to get around while the tunnel is closed for repairs, Muni has created the KJ Ingleside/Church line. Covering the first day of the closure, I tried out the service from St. Francis Circle to Noe Valley. The train pulled into the Balboa Park loop but, rather than turning around and heading back where it came from, it simply continued down San Jose Avenue on the J Church alignment to downtown.

It was the easiest trip from Ingleside to Noe I’d ever had.

Now, there may not be a huge demand for a one-seat ride from Ocean Avenue to Glen Park, Noe Valley, and other stops on this alignment. But there’s probably some–and it’s unclear why it’s been necessary to make this trip so difficult.

According to SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose, the agency is not considering continuing the KJ service after the Twin Peaks tunnel re-opens. And, clearly, there are considerations about making lines too long–the K line already combines with the T-Third train, so further combining it with the J Church would make a very long, complex line that might be plagued by scheduling problems. But when the Central Subway opens, T trains will be rerouted into the new tunnel, rending this particular argument against continuing the KJ moot.

“The KT line was created as a stop-gap between the opening of phase 1 of the T-Third and the opening of the Central Subway. Originally kept separate from the K, one of the goals of merging the lines was to reduce the impact on the Market Street tunnel by running the line through. The KJ line actually does a better job of meeting those goals and would allow for better connections between Ingleside, Glen Park, and Noe Valley (and Stern Grove!),” wrote Reed Martin of the San Francisco Transit Riders in an email.

If the KJ were to be continued, clearly it should not originate at St. Francis Circle, where it does now because of the Twin Peaks tunnel closure. Rather, it could follow the entire K and J alignments, starting and ending at Embarcadero. There are other configurations Muni could consider. But either way, the temporary KJ train is an opportunity for Muni to take another look at how it operates its trains to–and through–Balboa Park.

Tell us what you think in the comments below.

  • Keith

    Hey, while we think about the J, let’s plan next year to run it to the new Chinatown station rather than Embarcadero. That’d be a great way to connect the Mission/Noe area with Chinatown and North Beach

  • mx

    I like the idea, but is that possible? My understanding is that the only way to get into the Central Subway is to go into the new tunnel at 4th st. I’m not aware of an underground connection between the tunnels.

  • bob tobb

    From a purely selfish standpoint, I’d love this: I live at the southern end of the J and like to go up to Ocean for various restaurants, but it’s a pain in the ass with current transit infrastructure so we never take transit, and drive or walk instead.

  • Foginacan

    The M should connect, not the K.

    It’s a sad day when people can’t figure out the reason an Ingleside bus was chosen to extend to the Third Street Rail.

  • jonobate

    Extend the M to Daly City BART using new track built in the center of Juniper Sierra Blvd, abandoning the section of the route on Broad/Randolph/San Jose.

    Extend the J onto the Broad/Randolph/San Jose track abandoned by the M, and then onto the new Juniper Sierra track to terminate at Daly City BART.

    Extend the K to Bayshore Caltrain using new track built in the center of Geneva Ave. The T would also use the last section of this track to terminate at Bayshore Caltrain.

    Balboa Park would then be a crossroads for the J and K trains, with neither service terminating there. New Muni yards would be built near Daly City BART and Bayshore Caltrain, and the Balboa Park yard could be developed into something more appropriate for a site right next to a BART station.

  • Balboa Park is a transfer station. That’s why the J ends there.
    Originally, the J terminated at 30th/Mission. It was extended along San Jose Avenue to Balboa Park, just like the M line was extended to Balboa through Ingleside. Muni has expressed the idea of extending the J to SFSU or Stonestown depending on whether the M line underground project ever moves forward, but I totally agree that the current configuration of the rail system can be improved whether it’s through rerouting or consolidation.

  • That is impossible. The only way into the CS tunnel is along 4th.
    The best way to connect along a N-S route would be if the J was extended under Fillmore to the Marina then east to Aquatic Park/Wharf and then under Columbus where it could run as a combined J/T with the T running between Bayshore (eventually) and 30th/Mission or just to the wharf and the J from Balboa Park (or SFSU/Stonestown depending on whether the M line goes underground on 19th Ave) to 3rd/22nd in Mission Bay. With much of the line underground in the densest parts of the city, travel time would be reduced dramatically while connecting many neighborhoods and commercial centers.

  • Sean

    It probably has to due more with SFMTA work rules and layover.

  • SFMTA already has plans to extend the J through Ocean View to SF State a part of the Subway Expansion Project (formerly the 19th Ave project) which has been under development for almost ten years now.

    It began with the much simpler idea of running the M-line under 19th Avenue, but evolved into a four-car subway continuing underground from West Portal to Park Merced. The J-line would pick up the Ocean View leg of the M-line to SF State. The project is currently in a study phase where they’re trying to figure out prices, phasing, and basically figure out how it would work.


    There is a route identified for a future extension from Parkmerced to Daly City BART, but I doubt the SFMTA is going to consider it more than that until BART works out if they’re going to come to us with a subway under 19th Avenue.

    The long-term vision (not a plan yet, part of the SFMTA’s draft capacity expansion plan) is what @jonobate:disqus said, extending the K to Caltrain, but then Candlestick and Hunters Point as well.

  • David

    “Hey, this thing that benefits me would be be a great thing to do to all public transit. Why can’t the morons at SFMTA figure this out!” That’s the tl;dr of this editorial.

    But seriously, the only reason why this is happening is because the J/K line is terminating at St. Francis Circle. Considering your use of public transit, I’m surprised you didn’t account for basic scheduling principals, such as on-time adherence and layover minimums, or the general public confusion that would result from having two partially looped light-rail lines. Should the J be clockwise and the K be counter-clockwise? And what about that pesky T interline?

    Good luck getting the public “on board” with this change. Loop routes are so confusing to the public that Muni got ride of the 42 long ago, and AC Transit had to convert the 25 and 49 into A and B loops before ultimately eliminating them altogether in 2017.

    Anyway, the M extension is going to alter how the light-rail lines operate in the southwest quadrant of the city. Give it time…

  • p_chazz

    Build a track from 16th and Church down 16th to join with the T Third Street. Then run a line from Embarcadero up Market / Duboce / Church / 16th / Third / Fourth / Stockton to Chinatown.

  • Four-car or four-track subway? Forest Hill and WP stations can’t handle anything more than a 3-car train set. Regardless, putting the M underground is a waste of money (upwards of $3B in 2017 dollars) that can be better spent on other transit projects.

  • Roger R.

    “Loop routes are so confusing to the public”

    See London “Circle Line” and Tokyo Yamanote Line, to name a few. I lived in London for a few years and took the Circle Line and the Northern Line, which splits into two lines in Central London and then rejoins into a single line in south London, and rejoins and splits again in north London. If people were horribly confused by the 42, etc., it’s because of poor communications and way-finding.

    One option would be to simply have the K and J swap head signs at Balboa during a short layover and continue on. It saves passengers having to worry about making a connection.

    And what ABOUT that pesky T interline? Muni’s already planning to break them apart after the Central Subway opens.

  • jonobate

    I get really tired of people backing up their transit arguments by saying “London does this therefore it must be good”. So much of London’s rail infrastructure was built in a haphazard way by uncoordinated competing private companies who were figuring out how to build underground rail for the first time ever. Mistakes were made in the process, and while in the modern age TfL have done a good job of fixing those that they can, some of those mistakes just have to be managed as best as possible.

    The Northern Line split and recombine is a notorious pain in the ass for TfL to manage, and would certainly not have been designed if the line was built today. Branching divides frequency, and you want more frequency in the city center, not less! And a few years ago the Circle Line was split so that it’s no longer a circle, precisely because circle lines are a logistical pain in the ass. At some point you need to swap drivers and take trains out of service, and as a circle line never has a terminus, there’s no way to do that without making passengers wait in the middle of their journey.

  • Roger R.

    Well, fair enough about London (hadn’t realized the full Circle Line was discontinued…the map on my wall is out of date). But the proposed KJ isn’t a circle. Embarcadero becomes the end of the line in both directions. Martin Reed suggested another alternative, which is to run the KJ from West Portal to Balboa and then to Embarcadero on the J tracks. Run more West Portal shuttles in the tunnel so you can have a solid service in the underground portion that isn’t subjected to surface delays, etc. The purpose of this editorial is to suggest that from a customer perspective, kicking everybody out on every run to Balboa Park maybe isn’t so customer oriented (well, kind of hard to use that term when talking about Muni, but you catch my drift).

    Or hell, keep running the K and the J separately to Balboa for a layover and just flip the head sign between K and J instead of making passengers transfer between them (which I doubt many do anyway since it’s such a PITA at the moment).

    But as to comparing to other cities–nobody’s saying that automatically makes something good, but often it does, and that’s how transit systems get better, by borrowing from things that work elsewhere. Speaking of London, aren’t they essentially emulating the RER with the Crossrail project? Is that a bad thing? The RER is awesome, IMHO.

    Back to the Circle Line, lots of other cities still have them–I can’t imagine how Tokyo would function without the Yamanote. Moscow has one too. And Beijing. Probably more out there. Some big cities seem to think it’s a good idea. That said, I don’t think SF really lends itself to a full circle because of how it’s laid out, but of course there’s long been talk of BART ringing the entire Bay…not going to happen of course.

    Oh, on the Northern Line–I lived in Balham for a couple of years. I loved the fact that I could get a one seater to the Covent Garden office or head directly to Bank for a meeting. They maintained frequencies at night, as I recall, by having some trains turn back early…anyway, from a customer perspective it seemed great.

  • jonobate

    The bottom line is that Muni already has major scheduling issues, and if you double the length of a line by combining the K and J, you’re only going to excacerbate those issues. The KT is already too long to run reliably, resulting in gaps and bunching along the line, and the only reason they do it is because there’s no sidings or pocket tracks near the logical T-Third turn back locations of Castro or West Portal.

  • Four-cars, but still two-tracks. Though, some of this could change when a more detailed plan is released.

    West Portal would not need to be lengthened because it’s only two-car (perhaps someday three-car) L-Taraval trains which would continue using the existing surface-ish station. K-Ingleside and M-line trains would use a new underground station long enough to fit four-cars, while also giving the SFMTA a way to hold L trains on the surface or K/L trains underground for a few moments to a few minutes to adjust for gaps in the Twin Peaks Tunnel.

    Forest Hill needs to be lengthed, but my understanding is that’s much easier than a modern station because it’s not hemmed in on the ends by utilities and vents the way many modern stations are.

    Castro Station is the other station which would need to be lengthened as well, and I’m curious how that will work myself.

  • Clearly, the city hasn’t thought this through. Not only would several underground stations need to be expanded to handle 4-car train sets, but the Embarcadero turnaround would also have to be reconfigured to accommodate the increase in length, not to mention the inability to store more than one line between inbound/outbound. All this money and hassle and the M still won’t connect to BART at Daly City. Nor would this project generate much in new ridership,
    A much cheaper solution would be to underground the M just past SFC, entering a portal past the intersection where it splits from the K with two underground stations at Stonestown and SFSU/Park Merced, where it would connect with the J at the latter 3-track station, and then continue either underground or underground/elevated combination to Daly City BART. The K would be able to still serve the businesses along Ocean between 19th Ave/JS.

  • If you own a car, it’s hard to justify taking transit when you have to wait forever for 1 train, much less a train/train or train/bus transfer.
    We live in Parkside. I’ve played the “L to West Portal and transfer to a K” game to get to the 24 Hour Fitness on Ocean. Once. Took almost an hour…to go 2 miles. I either drive or run to the gym to get in my cardio.
    People simply need to look at a SF transit map to understand the inefficiencies and inadequacies of the entire system. Then zoom out to the Bay Area for a regional look. As someone visiting from NYC on business told me…BART is great for getting you to SF. The problem then becomes getting around SF. (Enter Lyft/Uber stage right.)

  • jai_dit

    I like how you jump straight to “surely this hasn’t been thought through” when these types of studies are well-staffed and take years and years to work out.

    Anyway, there are a number of engineering reasons why undergrounding the M between St Francis Circle and West Portal aren’t feasible. Check out page 2 of this PDF, dedicated to that very question: https://www.sfmta.com/sites/default/files/projects/2016/Station%201%20Engineering.pdf

  • stevenj

    SF will never have a real “circle” line like the Yamanote and Circle lines until a completely separated right of way is built for one, like Tokyo’s and London’s. I rode the J down to Ocean Ave last week from Noe Valley. It took a good 5 minutes for it just to “circle” through and around Balboa Park station and the Balboa Park Muni facility on it’s way to Ocean Ave. Going the other way from Ocean Ave to Noe Valley was much quicker. My guess as to why Muni does not want to keep the K/J going after the Twin Peaks tunnel project is complete is that it is faster from Ocean Ave to Embarcadero via the Twin Peaks tunnel than via the J line through Noe Valley.

    Muni did have plans at one point to extend the J line via the M line to 19th Ave. and a terminal at SF State or Stonestown. Muni’s latest plan is to move the M line off 19th Ave and through Park Merced to Daly City BART and underground part of that route.

  • You mean the same well-staffed studies that recommended a split Central Subway line in SOMA running under 3rd St. and a dogleg, zigzag tunnel to Stockton St. at Union Square? Undergrounding the M hasn’t been thought through at all.


Key members of the team that designed, planned and executed upgrades to Balboa Park Station. All photos Streetsblog/Rudick

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