Muni Metro moving faster, breaking down less

Despite a series of maddening morning meltdowns this week, statistics show service on Muni’s Metro subway system is getting better.

Thanks to initiatives designed to reduce delays, on-time light rail performance improved from 47 percent in May last year to 51 percent last month. The number of hours in vehicle delays has gone down from 452 in May to 414 in December.

John Haley, director of transit operations, said several factors contributed to the light-rail system improvements, including operation changes, replacing vehicle parts, infrastructure changes and better communication with Muni riders:

“Operation improvements are important … How we respond and manage those delays is critically important to how well we do overall.”

One of the operational changes occurred in the Embarcadero station where trains turn around. Haley said there has been “more focused supervision” at the station, which has improved the turnaround time from seven minutes to five minutes.

The change has shaved two minutes and led to increased early departures of trains at Embarcadero, though switching problems at the station were blamed for this week’s standstill.

Muni also began its three-car shuttle last October during the morning and evening peak hours from Embarcadero to West Portal stations.

The shuttle has helped alleviate crowding and is a big hit with Muni riders, said Haley at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s workshop on Tuesday.

The transit agency is continuing its focus on the N-Judah, which has the heaviest ridership of all the light-rail lines.

Muni has been testing a N-Judah shuttle that would end at Carl Street and Hillway Avenue. The shuttle will launch sometime in the spring, said Haley.

Other improvements include reducing the number slow zones in the system where trains must stop. Haley said 73 slow zones were removed after consulting the safety division. The removal has led a gain of two to four minutes of travel time.

Muni is also changing its way it deals with switchbacks. It’s a technique used by the transit agency to switch trains back in the opposite direction before they arrive at the end of terminal to help balance the system.

Haley said the transit agency has implemented new guidelines where Muni’s line management center can now issue a switchback when needed:

“What we’ve tried to do is look for other ways to recover from service delays.”

Total switchback incidents decreased from 700 in the spring to 300 at the end of 2013.

The N-Judah — known for having the most switchbacks — saw a decrease of 178 switchbacks from April to November of last year, according to transit agency figures.

Riders can also now find out through a vastly improved NextMuni system if a train arriving is switching back.

Mechanical issues on trains continues to cause delays on the light-rail system, but campaigns focused on doors, steps, propulsion system and the automatic train control system have helped improve vehicle reliability.

To date, the transit agency has rehabilitated 74 vehicles. One major improvement was replacing the communication link between the vehicle and automatic train control system.

Trains failing to change to automatic control at the portal entry can lead to delays. Failed portal entries are down 50 percent, said Haley.

The SFMTA is in the process of purchasing 175 new trains. The trains will arrive sometime at end of 2016.

The transit agency has also made infrastructure improvements along the T-Third Street line. Installation of signal priority at six intersections along the route has helped reduce travel time. Improvements were also made at the Fourth and King intersection.

Double berthing, which will allow two trains to stop at the same time in the subway to load and unload passengers is on its way. The transit agency is awaiting certification from the California Public Utilities Commission.

Implementation of double berthing could happen in the early spring, said Haley.

Challenges remain

Other than the system’s aging infrastructure and vehicle reliability issues — the transit agency has an operator shortage.

The transit agency is relying on overtime to help fill the service gaps, which has led to some operators working over 11 hours per shift.

SFMTA Transportation Director Ed Reiskin said the transit agency has been working to identify the needs in the transit division as well as looking at what resources the transit agency needs to accommodate a 10 percent increase in Muni service — an SFMTA goal for each of the next two fiscal years.

A plan is in place that will increase training staffing over the next 18 months, said Reiskin. Already the training division has received 15 people last month.

The transit agency will continue focusing on vehicle issues and its rehabilitation program to improve the reliability of trains.

Infrastructure projects such as the Sunset Tunnel Track Improvement Project and adding signal exemptions on Irving and Judah streets is also taking shape.