Muni go­ing state­of­the­art — but very slowly

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE - PHIL MATIER

Muni is on track to award an $89 mil­lion con­tract for a new, state­of­the­art sys­tem to in­form rid­ers when the next bus or train will ar­rive. At the same time, the down­town Muni Metro train rout­ing sys­tem still runs on floppy disks and is so an­ti­quated that man­agers can barely find spare parts or qual­i­fied tech­ni­cians to keep it run­ning. “It’s like a bridge that is be­ing held to­gether by bub­ble gum and duct tape,” said San Fran­cisco County Trans­porta­tion Au­thor­ity chair­man and Su­per­vi­sor Aaron Pe­skin.

Muni spokes­woman Kris­ten Hol­land took a softer tone, liken­ing the aged sys­tem to a vin­tage car.

“Just like a vin­tage car, as the sys­tem passes a cer­tain age it gets in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult and costly to main­tain,” Hol­land said. “Parts be­come scarce, and the num­ber of peo­ple who have the ex­per­tise in main­tain­ing the sys­tem dwin­dle over time.”

In­stalled in the 1990s, the au­to­mated sys­tem con­trols trains in the tun­nel be­tween the Em­bar­cadero and West Por­tal sta­tions. Dur­ing peak week­day com­mutes, that’s about 30 trains an hour.

And to ride the vin­tage car

“It’s like a bridge that is be­ing held to­gether by bub­ble gum and duct tape.”

Aaron Pe­skin, S.F. su­per­vi­sor

anal­ogy a lit­tle fur­ther, new op­er­a­tors who grew up driv­ing the com­puter equiv­a­lent of an au­to­matic must be taught how to pump a clutch.

In Muni’s case, the clutch con­trols a sys­tem that uses floppy disks. So op­er­a­tors have to learn com­plex, out­of­date com­puter tech­niques. It’s not easy. “Our cur­rent trans­porta­tion con­troller grad­u­a­tion rate is 40% to 50%,” Hol­land said.

An­other chal­lenge? Ob­tain­ing spare parts.

The fear of be­ing un­able to find those parts has Muni con­stantly scour­ing sup­pli­ers and other tran­sit sys­tems for parts be­fore they van­ish all to­gether. As in­sur­ance, Muni stocks up on spare parts and mines parts from tran­sit agencies that are re­plac­ing their an­ti­quated sys­tems with newer equip­ment.

“This buys us time, but is a clear sig­nal that we need to up­grade,” Hol­land said.

Pe­skin said he’s been aware of the sys­tem’s fragility since 2007, when he took a tour of the con­trol cen­ter fol­low­ing the open­ing of T­Third Street light rail line, which started run­ning more than a year late and more than $120 mil­lion over bud­get.

“It turned out that they were driv­ing pickup trucks down to Los An­ge­les to pick up parts be­ing stripped from L.A.’s tran­sit lines,” Pe­skin said.

But Muni Di­rec­tor Jef­frey Tum­lin says that while the sys­tem needs to be re­placed, he isn’t ready to sound the alarm.

“The train con­trol sys­tem isn’t a loom­ing cri­sis,” Tum­lin said. “Yes, it runs on DOS loaded from 5¼­inch floppy disks, but it’s still ser­vice­able.

“That said, in­vest­ing in a new train con­trol sys­tem will bring big ad­van­tages to the sys­tem. I hope it to be one of the sig­na­ture projects of my ten­ure,” he said.

The 2020 Muni Re­li­a­bil­ity Work­ing Group rec­om­mended re­plac­ing the tran­sit con­trol sys­tem within five to seven years.

Money for a new con­trol sys­tem has been folded into a larger $300 mil­lion project to mod­ern­ize the en­tire light rail sys­tem.

“Re­place­ment of the train con­trol sys­tem is in our cur­rent cap­i­tal plan, and we are on track to com­plete it on time, pro­vided we se­cure ad­di­tional cap­i­tal funds to com­plete the work,” Tum­lin said.

The Muni di­rec­tor is right to say the threat of a com­puter col­lapse is not im­mi­nent be­cause Muni Metro is closed right now and will likely stay that way un­til the end of the year. A botched re­pair job on the over­head wires trig­gered a clo­sure in Au­gust.

That brought the trains to a stop just days af­ter they had started run­ning again af­ter be­ing closed for five months dur­ing the coro­n­avirus pan­demic shut­down, when Muni op­er­a­tions were re­duced to core ser­vice.

Muni used the five­month break to re­pair over­head wires, only to have the sys­tem go down af­ter two newly in­stalled con­nec­tors, also known as splices, failed. It was later de­ter­mined the new splices were faulty.

The agency has since placed an emer­gency or­der for 200 splices from a new ven­dor to re­place at least 70, and pos­si­bly all 154, of the ex­ist­ing con­nec­tors. The re­pairs will likely take un­til the end of the year.

Mean­while, Muni is also on track to award a 16­year con­tract for a Next Gen­er­a­tion Cus­tomer In­for­ma­tion Sys­tem to de­liver state­of­the­art, real­time in­for­ma­tion to Muni rid­ers about when the next bus or train will ar­rive.

The sys­tem will in­clude larger, graph­i­cal signs at bus shel­ters and rail sta­tions, so­lar­pow­ered signs to ex­pand sign cov­er­age through­out the city, and a new mul­ti­lin­gual, pro­file­based trip plan­ning and mo­bile pay­ment app.

Great in­for­ma­tion to have, but only if the trains are run­ning. And that won’t hap­pen if the floppy disks flop.

San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle colum­nist Phil Matier ap­pears Sun­days and Wed­nes­days. Matier can be seen on the KGO­TV morn­ing and evening news and can also be heard on KCBS ra­dio Mon­day through Fri­day at 7:50 a.m. and 5:50 p.m. Got a tip? Call 415­777­8815, or email pmatier@sfchron­i­cle.com. Twit­ter: @philmatier

Paul Chinn / The Chron­i­cle 2018

Muni Metro light rail trains stop at West Por­tal Sta­tion. The sys­tem that con­trols trains in tun­nels is from the 1990s.

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