Muni Train Door Sensors Belie a Bigger Problem: Operators Can’t See

A combination of no mirrors and inadequate video screens makes it impossible for operators to do a proper look back

Muni train operators report that the look-back screens (seen top right, there's another out of view to the left) are prone to freezing, "white out" if they catch glare, and have blind spots. Photos: Streetsblog/Rudick
Muni train operators report that the look-back screens (seen top right, there's another out of view to the left) are prone to freezing, "white out" if they catch glare, and have blind spots. Photos: Streetsblog/Rudick

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Muni is now running two-car trains, with all doors operational, with its fleet of new Siemens-built light-rail vehicles. The agency announced yesterday that it has solved a door-sensor problem that contributed to three dragging incidents since November 2017. Muni had been running only single-car trains, with the rear doors locked, since April when a woman got her hand stuck in the rear door and was dragged and seriously injured at Embarcadero station.

From the SFMTA release:

Siemens, the train manufacturer, developed an updated door design that provides two additional sensitive edges, including one on the exterior side of the single panel door. This provides increased sensitivity to account for a broader range of obstructions with the doors.

But a safety expert and train operators who spoke with Streetsblog said a fundamental problem continues: the look-back video screens, which are supposed to allow operators to check to make sure nobody is being dragged by a train, are prone to freezing, glare issues, and have blind spots.

“When light hits the cameras, as happens every day, whether it’s artificial or natural light, the screen whites out,” said Roger Marenco, president of the Transportation Workers Union Local 250-A, which represents Muni’s operators. When that happens, operators “…can’t see anything. It just goes blank.”

On the new trains, rather than look in rear-view mirrors to make sure nobody is stuck in a door, the operators look at two digital screens (the right one is seen in the lead image, and there is a left one as well, each giving a view of the corresponding side of the train). But, as seen in the image below, the cameras that feed the screens are placed behind the first door (and in front of the last door). This, operators told Streetsblog, means it’s all but impossible to see the end doors.

The "rear view" camera, seen near the top, is behind the door, making it very difficult to see what's going on at the first and last doors of the train
The “rear view” camera, seen near the top, is behind the door, making it very difficult to see what’s going on at the first and last doors of the train

Rather than go through official channels, a small group of Muni operators agreed to speak with Streetsblog on condition of anonymity. One said the video screens, with cameras facing backwards and forwards, are confusing and counter-intuitive compared to a standard rear-view mirror. And there are bugs beyond the white outs mentioned by Morenco. One operator described a time he was startled to see a man standing dangerously close to his moving train. But it turned out the man wasn’t actually there; the video had frozen.

In addition, “The monitors that Muni operators use to look back at the doors are too small,” wrote transit safety expert Dennis Lytton, in a text message to Streetsblog. “Especially on a two-car consist, in various lighting and passenger loading conditions, it could be problematic.”

Officials from SFMTA acknowledged the problems. “We modified those monitors to make them touch screen (it’s a split screen where you can see down the vehicle in either direction),” wrote SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato. “We’re in the process of putting in and testing a larger, 10” monitor, based on user feedback as well.”

Lytton added that using video and screens instead of conventional mirrors isn’t necessary a bad idea, since they can cover more area.

Muni's older trains have conventional rear-view mirrors. Operators say these are much better than the digital screens on the new trains, which are counter intuitive and buggy
Muni’s older trains have conventional rear-view mirrors (seen retracted here since it’s between cars). Operators say these are better than the digital screens on the new trains, which are counter-intuitive and buggy

“But the installation…on the new Siemens-made cars don’t appear to meet that threshold,” he added. “The better door sensors are a good step. But the interface with the operator and the look-back monitor needs to be better evaluated.” Streetsblog has an inquiry out to Siemens, which builds light-rail vehicles all over the world, to find out if they’ve had similar issues in other cities.

Marenco, meanwhile, said that SFMTA did not adequately seek the input of train operators when they approved the new cars. “Now you have dangerous situations and people suing, it could cost somebody’s life.” When asked if the solution might be to bolt conventional rear-view mirrors to the new trains, he agreed. When asked if the new trains should be pulled from service until that change is made, he replied “absolutely, without a doubt.”

  • gb52

    Sometimes it’s difficult to read into what Morenco has to say. The Operators union is always so anti-MUNI that the facts get lost in the politics. Further it’s always doom and gloom instead of how to make things better. Many trains have gone mirrorless and improvements can be made but driver training should get them more accustomed to using the system. Each camera should cover three doors on the side of a vehicle, but we also need to educate patrons to stop putting their hands in doors and stay away from the train.

    It’s impossible to tell if someone has just run up to a train or if they are stuck in a door when a train is departing. The better solution for BART and MUNI is to have platform screen doors starting with all the downtown stations.

  • Robert Parks

    I’ll note that Muni has installed an excellent dual monitor rearview system on the most recent PCC rebuilds on the F-Market.

  • Platform screen doors? Good freaking luck having those installed for a reasonable cost in the next decade AND operate correctly. We can’t even have escalators working properly on a regular basis.

    I see Muni completely did away with the double boarding in the downtown stations. How many years for that failed project to launch and fizzle?

  • david vartanoff

    doomed to failure at conception–total waste of time and effort

  • psf

    Why couldn’t Siemens have simply installed windows in the driver’s compartments of the LRVs large enough for operators to open and stick their heads out and watch for passengers boarding and exiting the trains underground, just like BART. At the end of the day, human eyes are better than digital technology for this important procedure. Also, do the Siemens LRVs not pull up close enough to the platform mirrors at the ends of station platforms for the operators to use them to watch for passengers in the train doorways?

  • Kieran

    The most sensible thing in the article is this-Morenco, meanwhile, said that SFMTA did not adequately seek the input of train operators when they approved the new cars. “Now you have dangerous situations and people suing, it could cost somebody’s life.” When asked if the solution might be to bolt conventional rear-view mirrors to the new trains, he agreed. When asked if the new trains should be pulled from service until that change is made, he replied “absolutely, without a doubt.”

    I never understood why Muni(to the best of my knowledge, correct me if I’m wrong) never gets the input of operators when they get new LRVs or buses..Getting operator’s input when getting new vehicles built by a contractor is paramount, in my opinion to having vehicles that are basically custom-made for the operators and would hence operate a lot smoother than the crap we’re seeing today with the Siemens, for instance.

  • quisqas2378

    Well at least SFMTA still HAS TIME to ask Siemens to build in the rear view mirrors for the remaining LRV4 cars that have yet to be built.

  • Schad

    Double berthing is active during rush in the downtown stations, minus Embarcadero, where the platform design would result in patrons being too close for comfort to the edge the platform in certain spots. The inbound stations should double berth in the AM rush, and outbound during the PM rush.

  • A lot of the problem was the inconsistency of double berthing service. Sometimes trains would stop, sometimes they wouldn’t.

  • Chris

    It doesn’t seem like they got rider’s input either

  • Kieran

    Exactly. Muni never really takes the passengers’ views seriously, not only in terms of reroutes and all that but they definitely wouldn’t take passengers’ requests about what new buses/LRVs should have, either. The only real example of Muni taking the passengers’ views seriously at all was just recently concerning the Siemens, improving the seating and whatnot. That’s bout it.

    Muni should hold joint meetings with both passengers and drivers who will give their direct input to Muni and whoever happens to be the contractor for said new vehicles input all the way through the process. Including operators/passengers/Muni officials visiting the contractor onsite multiple times to see if they’re making the vehicles the precise way the operators and passengers specified.

    Hell, if Muni did this exact process with the Siemens LRVs, things could’ve been way different. One reason being, the factory’s in Sacramento, hence the operators/passengers/Muni officials could’ve definitely coordinated trips there via a Muni 60 foot articulated diesel/hybrid coach(yea, seriously, bus-pool, why not?). They could meet at say, City Hall and drive up to the Siemens factory to ensure Siemens is designing the LRVs correctly according to prior agreed upon specifications.

  • Kieran

    Yet, WILL they actually do that simple and highly effective move? Probably not, which is pathetic.

  • crazyvag

    How will a mirror work at nearly 240 feet with 3 car trains? Won’t a mirror simply prevent 3car trains in the future?

  • Kieran

    I don’t think it’d prevent it. The Boeing LRVs had 3 and 4 car trains in the subways quite a bit and they had mirrors with no cameras placed on the LRV bodies at all. They did fine.

    Obviously the Siemens aren’t the Boeings but nonetheless I don’t see why it can’t work.

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