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California and the West

Bay Area's Light Rail 'Meltdown' Raises Havoc

Transit: San Francisco Muni's new computerized system designed to streamline train operations collapses, leaving commuters in the lurch.

September 08, 1998|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — What people here are calling the Muni Meltdown began Aug. 22, when the city's transit service put into operation a $70-million computerized relay system meant to revolutionize its light-rail train operations.

Instead, the system shuddered, staggered and then suddenly collapsed in what panicked politicians and outraged commuters are calling the worst breakdown of the city's public transit system in memory.

San Francisco's 100-year-old system--which includes cable cars, streetcars, trolleys, trains and buses--has never been perfect. In fact, it has long been the subject of complaints among riders who say rude drivers and late and overcrowded buses are all too common.

But never before has so much gone so wrong at the same time. And in a city where public transportation is the preferred mode of travel for many, Muni's failure has been considered a disaster.

"We have more boardings on public transport here, per capita, than does any other city in the country," said Michael Yaki, a county supervisor and head of the transportation committee.

The computerization was supposed to cut morning commute time by increasing the number of trains that could shoot through the tunnel under Market Street, the backbone of downtown, from 24 an hour to 48 an hour. It also was supposed to virtually eliminate the possibility of collisions on the tracks.

Instead, traffic through the tunnel slowed to a crawl. Two days after the new computer went into operation, one driver panicked and locked himself in his cab, backing up the network for more than an hour and forcing Muni administrators to call the police to coax him out. Other trains simply broke down, or their doors--now operated by computer--refused to open or shut.

Muni and city officials issued assurances that the problems would be quickly worked out. But the situation continued to deteriorate. Commuters began to lose patience.

And then, during the Aug. 28 morning commute, the wounded system essentially lay down and died.

More than half of the trains that haul at least 100,000 commuters in and out of downtown every workday stopped running. Commuters were stranded in tunnels and on platforms for up to an hour.

Computer glitches, driver errors, breakdowns and at least one derailment made Muni just about the only topic of conversation in the city that day.

Ugly confrontations erupted between drivers and riders. The mayor and county supervisors were inundated with complaints. "Muni Hell on Wheels," screamed the front page of that afternoon's San Francisco Examiner.

Frantic efforts by Muni technicians resurrected the system by the next day, putting more trains into service and switching to manual control of their movements. As the week wore on, the computer system seemed to function more smoothly. But delays and overcrowding are still widespread.

Both Mayor Willie Brown and Muni director Emilio Cruz say no quick fix is possible. At least one county supervisor has raised the possibility that the new computer system may simply have to be scrapped, although no one knows how the city would pay for another one.

Riders are furious.

"I'm thoroughly disgusted," said Noel Dedora, an investment manager who took his frustrations out on a Muni driver on the Embarcadero station's crowded platform during the Thursday evening rush hour.

"It's not my fault!" the visibly agitated driver shouted back when Dedora screamed at him about the delays.

A Muni rider since 1990, Dedora said he could never recall a worse time for public transit in the city.

"They should indeed fire all the people responsible for this," he said.

Every day, commuters switch on all-news radio stations early in the morning to calculate their chances of getting to work on time. Talk radio programs are filled with angry exchanges between city officials, Muni representatives and riders.

Columnists have been merciless, skewering the transit system's union and its administration. They have assailed Brown, never failing to remind readers that he promised, as a candidate, to fix Muni in 100 days. And they have pitied commuters, referring to them as "Muni moles" trapped on stalled trains in pitch-dark tunnels.

"We're all going to be held accountable, and rightfully so," said Yaki, the supervisor. "The heat is on."

If another collapse on the scale of the Aug. 28 disaster occurs, Yaki said, "I think that the public's trust in this system will be irrevocably broken and we'll have no choice but to start from scratch."

Failure Blamed on Many Factors

Yaki blames the system breakdown on a combination of factors. Chief among them, says the Brown appointee, are years of neglect by previous administrations that forced Muni to continue operating aging trains long past their useful life and kept it from modernizing operations.

But Yaki says the transit system also suffers from poor planning and poorly trained drivers who don't know how to deal with the new computer system.

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